BRENDAN MORIARTY AGAINST HOROWHENUA CHRONICLE

Case Number: 2478

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2015

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Horowhenua-Kapiti Chronicle

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Misleading
Other
Right of Reply

Overview

Brendan Moriarty has complained about a story on page 20 of the Horowhenua Chronicle on September 18 titled ‘New phase for lake clean-up’, the latest in a long-running series of stories in many media about the quality of the water in what others have called the “lake of shame”.

This story, appearing without a by-line, updates readers on the “second phase” of restoration work being undertaken under the Lake Horowhenua Accord of 2014 and quotes three sources – the Accord chair, district mayor and a council official.

The Complaint

The complaint names numerous principles: 1) Accuracy, fairness and balance, 4) Comment and fact, 5) Columns etc, 6) Headlines and captions, 7) Discrimination and diversity, 8) Confidentiality, 10) Conflicts of interest, and 12) Corrections. But in essence, Mr Moriarty’s concern is that the article is almost entirely a press release from the Horowhenua District Council and is not labelled as such.

Mr Moriarty says the article is a press release from the Horowhenua District Council issued the day prior and stresses that the complaint does not target the newspaper but rather the principle that readers should be told if the item they are reading is a press release. “We believe the Chronicle and all other newspapers should be directed to indicate such items… so that any reasonable person reading it can identify that it presents one side,” he writes.

Further, Mr Moriarty says running a press release from one side in this long-running environmental dispute without offering a counter view makes this “a biased account” and fears the paper is vulnerable to threats by the council to withdraw advertising if it does not report favourably on it. He claims editor Cherie Taylor said as much when she visited his home to discuss the complaint, worrying for the livelihoods of her six staff if she were to be in dispute with the district council.

The Response

The Chronicle’s initial response to the complainant, from Taylor, was to investigate and reply the next day. NZME Senior Editor Craig Cooper then took over correspondence, acknowledging “the story consisted largely of content from a Horowhenua District Council press release”. The paper relied on the council for the accuracy of the information “in good faith”, but offered to correct any inaccuracies Mr Moriarty could identify, “listen” to dissenting arguments “with a view to potentially publishing these opinions”, and publish a letter to the editor. He concluded saying that Mr Moriarty raised “a good point re ‘what is a press release v what is a news story’” and admitted “we can do better”.

Writing to the Council, Cooper says he is unable to find any breach of the principles and the editor ran the press release confident its content was accurate and did not require balance.

He continues, saying Mr Moriarty neither made any specific claims of inaccuracy nor took up the offer to balance the story with a letter to the editor or by taking part in a follow-up story. He notes that long-running issues such as these are balanced over time via multiple stories.

Finally, Cooper notes that the complaint is partly based on the allegation the council has threatened to withdraw its advertising from the paper, which he says is untrue.

The Decision

The article is in very large part – but not verbatim – the words of a press release by the district council. Some sentences are run together, a few are cut, and several words have been added, but no other sources or information are included. The press release is unusually thorough, running to 20 pars and quoting three sources.

Press releases are a useful way for newspapers to receive information and comment from interested parties. However, as the senior editor concedes, using a release almost verbatim falls well below best practice. Newspapers risk losing the trust of their readership if they print material that is not independent and objective (or otherwise clearly labelled as comment).

We note the newspaper promptly offered the complainant a right of reply and a chance to balance the story – an opportunity Mr Moriarty says he refused because “that is the job of a suitably skilled journalist.” There was clearly some misunderstanding here as the newspaper argues this is precisely what they were offering and the Council acknowledges the paper did well to offer Mr Moriarty those avenues of redress, However, it is the responsibility of the publication to provide balance regardless and without relying on a complainant.

Most of the principles claimed by the complainant are not relevant in this case, so we have narrowed the focus to Principle 1, Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.

We accept that Mr Moriarty has not provided any evidence of any inaccuracies. So balance is the crucial point here. Does a press release that has not been independently verified amount to a balanced news article? The Press Council does not think so. While we acknowledge this is a long-running issue and balance can be provided over time, to simply print a release from a political organisation including three sources from the same side of the argument does not make for a balanced piece of journalism.

In Cooper’s own words, the three people quoted in the story were given the chance to “opine” in favour of the actions taken to clean up the lake. Yet no effort was made to report a dissenting view or offer a right of reply to critics of the Accord’s plan.The complaint against Principle 1 is upheld.

Finally, there are opposing claims as to any commercial pressure being brought to bear by the district council, so we cannot comment on that issue.