ADITH STONEMAN AGAINST SUNDAY STAR-TIMES

Case Number: 2517

Council Meeting: JUNE 2016

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Conflict of Interest
Headlines and Captions
Privacy
Unfair Coverage

Overview

[1] Adith Stoneman is an antenatal class teacher who has complained about two articles published in theSunday Star Times on consecutive weekends, April 17 and 24, and an editorial published on April 17.

[2] The stories cover classes provided by the Waitemata District Health Board and taught by the complainant, claiming the information given in the lessons was “dangerous” and “dodgy” and that the handouts provided to pregnant women were sub-standard. One of the sources for the story was a reporter at the paper, although the angle was the DHB’s decision to investigate the courses and “track down” the expectant parents who attended Stoneman’s classes.

[3] The headlines of the articles were Inquiry into ‘dangerous’ baby advice andAlarm grows at dodgy lessons for mums-to-be. The editorial was titled Brunch, pop out baby, then cocktails.

The Complaint

[4] Stoneman first wrote to the Sunday Star Times on May 16 making complaints according to four Press Council principles;1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, 2) Privacy, 6) Headlines and Captions and 10) Conflict of Interest. Potential complaints under principles four and eight are not relevant in this case.

[5] In her subsequent complaint to the Council she claimed the story contained “blatant lies” and zeroed in on two areas of concern: The videotaping of an interview with a family member on her doorstep and her reputation being unfairly maligned when blame rested with the DHB. As the initial complaint to the paper is attached to her Council complaint, we will address all the issues raised.

[6] Stoneman says story was inaccurate because it reported that she was under investigation as of April 17; “at this point I was not under investigation”, she says. (However in her final comment she says she had received a “confusing” call from the DHB on April 15 telling her not to talk to the media.) The paper did not ring her until 9.15pm, which was not enough time to do the story justice. (In her final comment, Stoneman acknowledges she “may have got the time wrong”).

[7] The story invaded her privacy and that of her family as her name was put in the story, her photo was taken from Facebook and published and, after the initial story, a reporter and videographer arrived at her home and videoed an interview with a family member without permission or knowledge they were being filmed. Stoneman adds a journalist should know “one cannot talk to the media whilst being investigated” and the story was not in the public interest as “nobody has died or been hurt by me”.

[8] The headline and sub-head on the April 17 story are both inaccurate. The complainant says she did not give “dangerous baby advice” and did not accuse “pregnant women of fitting childbirth around their ‘social diaries’.”

[9] Finally, the complainant says that Fairfax journalist Shabnam Dastgheib was one of the sources for the story and, therefore, is compromised by a conflict of interest. Further, she only attended one class.

[10] In her Press Council complaint, Stoneman says she was not happy about the video interview [taken between the two stories] of her family member when he opened the door and was confronted by the journalist and videographer. She says the family member “told them straight away that he could not talk to the media” and the editor’s defence of his staff was “an outrage”. By that time she says she was under investigation and had been told by the DHB she could not talk to the media.

[11] Stoneman also complains that she is being blamed unfairly for the DHB’s failings. The complainant says that “without a shadow of a doubt” she did the best she could in her job and that “the wrong doing is not mine but indeed my employer’s”, suggesting that DHB has not audited or managed the antenatal programme properly.

The Response

[12] Sunday Star-Times editor Jonathan Milne initially replied to the complaint at length, taking each of the principle complaints in turn.

[13] On Principle 1 Milne says according to the paper’s computer logs the story was filed at 4:32pm, so Stoneman is incorrect to say they did not call until 9.15pm. Rather, they tried ringing sometime after 3.30pm and Stoneman hung up on the reporter. He continues that the DHB issued a statement on Friday saying it had commenced an investigation and so stands by the paper’s claim Stoneman was under investigation as of April 17, whether she knew it or not.

[14] On Principle 2, Milne argues naming Stoneman was in the public interest, as the DHB was attempting to contact mothers who had been in her classes. He says it is common practice to use photos off Facebook, but due to her concern he had removed the image from the story that was still on Stuff.

[15] As for the doorstep interview with the family member, Milne says the paper had tried making contact via phone, Facebook and email; the reporter identified herself as a Fairfax reporter and the family member spoke openly and without complaint or asking them to leave the property.

[16] On Principle 6, Milne says the word “dangerous” was a quote from Action to Improve Maternity spokeswoman Jenn Hooper and the “social diaries” sub-head was based on one of the brochures Stoneman provided in class, subsequently retracted by the DHB.

[17] Finally, on Principle 10, he acknowledges Dastgheib “is one of our journalists”, but her first person contribution to the story was clearly headlined “Why I dropped out of antenatal class” and so her own experience was fully disclosed.

[18] In his defence to the Press Council, Milne addresses her two narrower points. First, he says he reviewed the recorded interview with the family member and agrees the family member does point out that the complainant is under investigation and “has been advised not to talk to the media”. Milne continues, “However he was happy to do so, and proceeded to give us a brief statement without imposing any constraints or caveats”. He never asked the journalists to leave the property and in the video his face was pixelated.

[19] On Stoneman’s concern that the reported fault lay with the DHB, not her, he says both parties were given the chance to comment on the story and the paper will report on the outcome of the DHB’s inquiry, regardless of who it finds to have been at fault.

The Decision

[20] The complainant offers no evidence for her claim that the story was based on “blatant lies”, the paper’s deadlines and computer logs suggest phone calls were made to offer Stoneman a right of reply well before 9.15pm, which she has conceded. Whether or not Stoneman had been informed, the newspaper reasonably relied on the DHB’s own statement saying that Stonemason’s classes were under investigation as of April 17.

Neither does she offer any evidence to back up her claim that the fault lay with the DHB and nor does it change what was taught in her classes, and reported by the newspaper.

The complaint against Principle 1 is not upheld.

[21] People are named in the media every day without their permission and where there is a public interest that is right and proper. Refusal by an accused party to comment or return phone calls is no reason for media to ignore a story.In this case there was a strong public interest as the DHB had found fault with the classes and handouts and were actively trying to track down parents who had attended, so as to correct any misinformation received. Of course, people do not need to die or be physically hurt for events to be of public interest.Further, given the DHB’s (and newspaper’s) desire to alert people who attended Stoneman’s class, there was sufficient public interest to justify using her Facebook photo to illustrate the story.

[22] Door-stepping someone who is the focus of a story should not be done lightly, but gaining comment from Stoneman was in the public interest and strenuous efforts had been made via multiple means to contact her. It was not unreasonable to knock on her door. While she was in a difficult position and had every right to refuse comment (and was under considerable pressure from the DHB to do just that), equally the reporter had every right to ask questions of the family member and, if he chose to answer, to report those answers, even if he had prefaced those answers by saying Stoneman herself was under orders to remain silent. Stoneman claims her family member did not know he was being filmed, but that seems unlikely given it was filmed both on a phone and, most notably, a video camera. The complaint against Principle 2 is not upheld.

[23] While the complainant asserts the headlines are false, she offers no evidence to support that. TheStar-Times, however, was relying on expert comment and written material from the class. The headlines fairly conveyed the substance of the report.The complaint against Principle 6 is not upheld.

[24] Reporter Shabnam Dastgheib’s link to the story was clearly identified and she wrote what was clearly labelled a first person account. She also clearly states her comments are based on attending a single class. Her work as a journalist does not discount her as a source. The complaint against Principle 10 is not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Vernon Small, Marie Shroff, Mark Stevens, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

John Roughan stood down from the consideration of this complaint to ensure public member majority.