ANDREW van der VOORT AGAINST THE DOMINION POST

Case Number: 2347

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2013

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Bias
Columnists
Accuracy
Misleading

Andrew van der Voort complained that a column in The Dominion Post commenting on the shooting of an unarmed black American teenager, Trayvon Martin, by a neighbourhood watch volunteer, was biased and inaccurate on several points.

Mr van der Voort considered the columnist, Rosemary McLeod, was factually wrong to describe the accused man, George Zimmerman, as "white" when he was Hispanic, wrong to describe him as a "vigilante" and misleading when she said Trayvon Martin had been confronted with a gun. The complainant understood the weapon had been concealed when Mr Zimmerman approached the teenager and the gun was produced when they began fighting.

Mr van der Voort said the column was biased when it referred to criminal allegations against Mr Martin as a "claim", and he considered it a further inaccuracy to say the young man was killed because he made Mr Zimmerman nervous.

In response, the editor of The Dominion Post pointed out that "white" and "Hispanic" are not mutually exclusive terms. She said the US Census does not recognise Hispanic as racial group. The Census Bureau had explained that, "Persons who report themselves as Hispanic can be of any race and are identified as such in our data tables." Mr Zimmerman's father was white and his mother was Peruvian. In a phone call made by Trayvon Martin on the night he died it was clear he believed the man following him was white.

The editor noted that Mr Zimmerman had been described as a "vigilante" by the prosecution at his trial, where it appeared on the evidence that he had departed from normal neighbourhood watch practice. A columnist was entitled to take a different view from the jury.

As to the question of whether Trayvon Martin had been "confronted by a very large white man with a gun", the editor argued there was no dispute that Mr Zimmerman had a gun when he confronted him.

The Council agreed with the editor on each of these issues. The column was entitled to describe Mr Zimmerman as white in this context. It was fair to call him a vigilante, a word the complainant associates with seeking vengeance. Its meaning is broader, referring to an unauthorised person who takes the law into his own hands. It is clear in reports of the trial that Mr Zimmerman went beyond a neighbourhood watch brief.

The columnist had a right to express her opinions about the allegations against Mr Martin and on Mr Zimmerman's supposed state of mind. The Council did not agree that the reference to being confronted with a gun necessarily implied the gun was visible at the outset, some members found the wording ambiguous.

The column was a strongly phrased opinion on an incident that had attracted a great deal of concern in the United States and worldwide. The column breached none of the Press Council's principles governing publication of opinions. The complaint was not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Clive Lind, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.