AKAROA HARBOUR RECREATIONAL FISHING CLUB Inc AGAINST THE PRESS

Case Number: 2550

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2016

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought

Overview

The Akaroa Harbour Recreational Fishing Club complained that an article entitled “Akaroa dolphin tourism curtailed” published inThe Press on September 19 breached Principle 1, Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.

Background

The Press ran a news story on A3 of its September 19 newspaper entitled “Akaroa dolphin tourism curtailed”, regarding a 10-year ban on any new dolphin tourism ventures in Akaroa. The moratorium, it said, was an attempt to protect the endangered Hector’s dolphin, which is heavily affected by the increasing numbers of visitors to Akaroa Harbour. The story was also published online on September 18.

In paragraph five of the story, The Press said: “The population of the tiny native dolphin has nosedived in recent decades. There are now about 7000 left.” The article went on to discuss the risks of the dolphins’ over-exposure to humans, “which would negatively affect the population in the long run” and included quotes from DOC operations manager Jeremy Severinsen.

It said the moratorium was supported by the local Runanga, the Canterbury Aoraki Conservation Board and tourism operators.

The Complaint

On October 3, Akaroa Harbour Recreational Fishing Club president James Crossland emailedThe Press, pointing out “significant errors”. New research, he said, showed the population of Hector’s dolphins has in fact increased dramatically since the 1980s, to around 15,000.

He quoted Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) minister Nathan Guy as saying the new estimates had come from aerial surveys that covered a much greater area offshore than previous boat-based surveys. The survey had been independently peer reviewed and endorsed by scientists at the International Whaling Commission.

The minister had said the current estimate “gives us an assurance the numbers are scientifically robust.”

Mr Crossland protested that reporting there were “7000 left” was pejorative as it implies the population was much greater in the past. It was not possible to reliably estimate a population size in the past and all anecdotal evidence suggested that the population is now far greater than it was.

The Akaroa Harbour Recreational Fishing Club asked The Press to either publish its letter, or print a correction.The Press did not respond to the email.

On 12 October, Mr Crossland again emailed The Press, but again received no response

In his complaint to the Press Council, Mr Crossland said for many years the people of Canterbury had been led to believe the population of Hector’s dolphin was in a parlous state. “If such a statement is repeated often enough it becomes accepted as true,” he said.

The Response

The deputy editor of The Press, Kamala Hayman, acknowledged that there had been no response to either of Mr Crossland’s emails. She saidThe Press had investigated its failure to reply on the two occasions, and found both were due to human error. The first email was forwarded to the journalist concerned and the chief news director, but no response was sent to Mr Crossland. The second email, she said, was not seen and clearly had not been opened.

Ms Hayman apologised for the lack of response to Mr Crossland. She said the parties involved had been reminded that the paper had a strict policy regarding complaints and any allegations of inaccuracy. She was confident this reminder would address the failure to respond.

On the matter of accuracy and the alleged breach of Principle 1, she said the story relied on information provided to the journalist by the Department of Conservation.The Press had no reason to doubt the more up-to-date sources relied on by Mr Crossland, and accepted the 15,000 figure for the Hector’s dolphin population.

The online version of the story had been updated and a new story had been commissioned on dolphin numbers.

Further response from the complainant

Mr Crossland said the committee members of the fishing club did not accept The Press’ explanation for the lack of response to either email, and called it an “attempt at a cover up”.

He said both letters were sent to the correct email addresses and marked “Read Receipt”. They were both copied to the club’s committee members and received by them. “It seems to us that the correspondence was ignored in the hope that it would go away.”

He rebutted The Press’ suggestion that DOC was to blame for providing the journalist with the wrong numbers, saying DOC had been in possession of the updated population data for at least two years. The survey, he said, was a joint initiative by DOC and MPI, and the information had been in the public domain since that time.

The Decision

The Press’ article on the 10-year ban on new dolphin tourism ventures in Akaroa Harbour was a 15-paragraph story which occupied a prominent position at the top of page A3 of its Monday morning print edition on September 19. The story was also published online on September 18.

Given the affection New Zealanders have for the little native dolphins, and the general understanding that they are an endangered species, there is no doubt that any initiative to further protect them is newsworthy, and as a result the story it would have been widely read in both versions.

The fact that paragraph five contained an error was regrettable, although not necessarily the newspaper’s fault if the information provided to the journalist by DOC was incorrect. The “pejorative” statement based on the DOC figures “There are now about 7000 left”, possibly compounded the error, but there was nothing wrong in the journalist making a strong statement to back up his opening line that the population has “nosedived in recent decades”.

A Google search in fact returned a large number of websites which incorrectly state the figure at 7000, but some, including Wikipedia, quoted the up-to-date figure of about 15,000. Given that paragraph five was a key point in the story, it is a pity the newspaper did not exercise due diligence by fact-checking the statement, but mistakes do happen.

The Press’ failure to respond to either of Mr Crossland’s emails politely suggesting the error be corrected is, however, inexcusable.

The deputy editor’s explanation of the events, which led to the failure of anyone at the newspaper getting back to Mr Crossland is inadequate. The suggestion that the second email had not even been seen by the editorial staff it was sent to, when it was obviously correctly addressed, is unconvincing, and we have some sympathy with the fishing club committee members who believed the correspondence was ignored in the hope that it would go away. *

This is not the first time The Press has failed to respond to complaints in a timely fashion, and on two occasions** in the past two years, this basic lack of courtesy and professionalism has led to complaints which the Press Council has upheld.

The point at issue here however, is not the paper’s handling of the complaint; despite the online version of the story being updated, the error was not corrected in the print version of the publication, which leaves a good proportion of the readers misinformed.

As the Press Council has noted in previous decisions, the rules apply for both print and digital. If the newsroom deemed the story worthy of a correction online, it must be worthy of a correction in print too.

The complaint is upheld.

* Post decision the editor of The Press has approached us. While accepting an inexcusable failure to respond to the complaints she stated there was nothing willful with regards to the failure. She pointed to the enormous volume of emails received on the day of the second complaint. While saying this was not an excuse she assured us that there was no deliberate decision by the personnel involved to deliberately ignore the email complaint. We accept that assurance. While appreciating reduction in staff numbers and volume difficulties newsrooms face it remains the responsibility of the publication to ensure that all complaints are picked up and responded to in a timely fashion.

**2371 William Lentjes against the Press

**2443 Alice Flett against The Press

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Mark Stevens and Vernon Small.