ADAM LANG AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2536

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2016

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Comment and Fact

Overview

On August 10, Stuff.co.nz published an article entitled “Donald Trump alludes to shooting Hillary Clinton”. The article was from Paul McGeough, Chief Foreign Correspondent for theSydney Morning Herald. The story was based on coverage from US media in which Republican Presidential nominee, Donald Trump, had made a speech at a supporters’ rally. Media had covered the rally in particular Mr Trump’s comments which some US media had portrayed as inciting violence against Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.

Many Americans are very protective of their Second Amendment right to bear arms. Mr Trump’s speech at the rally was part of an orchestrated campaign to show that Hillary Clinton might seek to impinge that right if she were President. The exact controversial wording of Mr Trump’s speech was “Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the second amendment; and by the way, and if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks. Although the second amendment people, maybe there is, I dunno.”

The comments received considerable international media attention.

The Complaint

On August 13, Adam Lang complained to Fairfax Media that the article breached Press Council principles 1 (Fairness, Accuracy and Balance) and 4 (Comment and Fact).

Mr Lang argues that the article is inaccurate. Mr Trump’s spokesperson had confirmed following the speech to media that the words were not about inciting violence and the journalist ignored this and published “misinformation” about Trump suggesting American gun owners should shoot Hillary Clinton.

The journalist, Paul McGeough, offered his opinion in the article and therefore it was an opinion piece and not fact. The article was not portrayed as opinion.

Mr Lang said his expectation for remedial action was the article and headline to be altered to correctly state that the article was an opinion piece and not an article of fact. Mr Lang also wanted a retraction of the statements “the GOP candidate suggested American gun owners should shoot Hillary Clinton” and “Donald Trump alludes to shooting Hillary Clinton”. He also wanted an apology from the journalist and for that apology to be published on the publication’s website.

The Response

Patrick Crewdson (Editor, Stuff) responded to Mr Lang’s complaint on 16 August. He said that he understood Mr Lang’s basis for complaint however disagreed that it contravened any Press Council principles.

Mr Crewdson explained that the journalist was the chief foreign correspondent for theSydney Morning Herald. The original article was published in that publication. Given his experience and role, the journalist was qualified to include analysis and interpretation in his articles without it necessarily constituting an expression of personal opinion.

In his response to the Press Council, Mr Crewdson adds that the article was news reportage that included elements of analysis on the possible meaning of the candidate’s comments. The Editor said that Mr Lang had acknowledged the technique used by some journalists of weaving analysis into their articles so the issue in dispute is whether the journalist’s interpretation was reasonable. This technique would be more prominent during political campaigns in which comments from candidates are open for analysis by stakeholders including media. The interpretation by the journalist given the context of other views within the article itself was reasonable.

Mr Crewdson added that Trump’s comments in the speech sparked considerable controversy. Reputable media outlets around the world drew the same conclusion – that his comments could be interpreted as inciting violence. Mr Crewdson provided examples of this interpretation from The Guardian and The Telegraph. He added that CNN had subsequently reported that the US Secret Service was sufficiently concerned about Mr Trump’s comments that they spoke with his campaign team about them.

Mr Crewdson said that the journalist reported Mr Trump’s exact words and his campaign team’s denial that he was “advocating any form of violence”. There was also reaction from other interested parties. There was no risk of readers being misled.

The Decision

The comments from Donald Trump caused international controversy which was captured by traditional and social media channels. Stuff also had the video coverage of his comments as part of their August 10 article.

There seems to be growing consensus from media outlets that Mr Trump’s words, whilst possibly clumsy in delivery, did give the impression to the public that he was alluding to second amendment supporters being able to do something untoward to Hillary Clinton. The word allude means to suggest or call attention to indirectly or hint at. Based on the consensus by global media, political commentators, and security experts around the remarks, the headline of the article is accurate.

The exact wording of what Mr Trump said was reported accurately by Paul McGeough however the question falls on whether the journalist’s analysis of the remarks was opinion and whether it was suitable in an article of fact and if suitable, was it reasonable.

US Presidential elections are widely covered by international media given the importance of the role to both the US and in global affairs. Candidate comments are therefore pored over by media, which requires an element of analysis or interpretation given the nature of political discourse during election campaigning. Part of that analysis requires seeking views of experts and putting the nominee’s comments within the context of remarks by close confidantes who are likely to be Cabinet members and of course Opposition spokespeople.

Journalists do not take at face value what political spokespeople say on behalf of their candidates; it requires analysis and further questioning given the role of the fourth estate. The Trump spokesperson may have said explicitly that the interpretation of his candidate’s comments was wrong, but that should not mean media or the public can take it at face value. Paul McGeough was not alone in his analysis of the comments or his views of the response from Mr Trump’s campaign team. It should be noted that Hillary Clinton’s spokesperson had said prior to and post the rally that she would not do anything to impinge on the second amendment right but this has not stopped the Trump campaign continue to question that. It is the nature of a political campaign.

In response to Mr Lang’s point about some of his comments to the editor then being raised with the Council, it is important that the Council makes a decision based on the full nature of the exchange between the complainant and the publication.

It is worth noting that since this article and complaint, Mr Trump continues to make further controversial comments related to security around Ms Clinton. It has been reported that the US Secret Service have had to again speak with his campaign team. The same series of events has occurred – media pick it up, experts have commented on it, allegations made and reported by media, and spokespeople responding that media have misinterpreted what their candidate has said.

The complaint is not upheld in relation to all principles.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens, and Tim Watkin.