CANTERBURY DISTRICT HEALTH BOARD AGAINST THE STAR

Case Number: 2523

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2016

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: The Star

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Comment and Fact
Discrimination
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Headlines and Captions
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. The Canterbury DHB (CDHB) has complained about an article headlined “Violent patients told to leave hospital” published byThe Star in Christchurch on May 19, 2016 and based on data supplied under the Official Information Act.

2. It cites breaches of the Press Council’s principle 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance) 4 (comment and fact), 6 (headlines and captions), 7 (discrimination and diversity) and 12 (corrections).

3. The complaint in relation to accuracy and fairness is upheld.

Background

4. The article addressed the issue of violence against CDHB staff. It drew on data provided under the Official Information Act and posted on the information sharing website FYI.

5. It asserted that patients were being “forced” to leave hospitals in Canterbury “because of the risk they pose to nurses and other staff”.

6. The source information showed that the number of attacks on staff had dropped dramatically, after rising post the Canterbury earthquakes, with 1052 incidents reported in 2014 but only 383 last year.

7. The Star included comment from an elected health board member Aaron Keown who said removing violent patients from a hospital was no different to refusing to serve an abusive customer in retail. He said mental health patients who were abusive or dangerous should be sent for treatment within the mental health system but anyone else who was violent should be refused treatment.

8. The story also included comment from Nurses’ Association organiser who put the decline in incidents mainly down to a change in the reporting system and the way incidents were recorded, meaning the data under-reported them and was therefore potentially misleading.

9. The Star sought further information and clarification from the CDHB with a number of questions but the CDHB decided to treat those as a further OIA, though its spokesperson did raise concerns (although not as an official response) that the newspaper had misunderstood the reason why patients were discharged and asked it to hold off publication pending the full OIA response. The newspaper printed the story and did not wait for the OIA.

The Complaint

10. CDHB media adviser Amy Milne complained that the article on May 19 misreported the information in the OIA and that the CDHB’s original information had said nothing about violent patients being told to leave hospital. The possible reasons provided for the drop in incidents included “the discharge of patients responsible for a significant number of physical assaults on staff” as well as changes to the reporting system, an extra focus on staff safety and staff coming to grips with the new system.

11. She had been alerted to the potential misunderstanding by the nature of follow up questions submitted byThe Star, In particular the question: “How many patients have been discharged for physically assaulting staff over each of those years?”

12. On the morning of May 19 - the day the article was published - she had contacted the reporter and, citing the key follow up question, explained that what was meant by the original OIA response was that “patients who may have violent behaviours due to their illness have become well and been discharged”.

13. However she had told the reporter not to quote that comment, which was provided for her information, but asked her to wait for more information in answer to her questions, which were being treated as a further OIA, before reporting anything. “In my conversations to the reporter I said that some Mental Health patients may have violent behaviours because of their illness. They certainly wouldn't be discharged because of them. Quite the contrary. They would be discharged once they had recovered.”

14. She said the article had caused public concern to mental health patients who feared they would be discharged.

15. The CDHB had unsuccessfully sought a correction in conversations with editor Barry Clarke.

16. The CDHB board member quoted Aaron Keown was not a spokesman for the board or the CDHB and was not authorised to speak on their behalf.

17. The article contained undertones of discrimination against those with mental illnesses.

The Response

18. Mr Clarke in reply said he believed the article was fair, balanced and accurate, and every effort was made to get a response from the CDHB.

19. The article's angle was backed up by comments from Mr Keown.

20. He noted that the original OIA cited a number of possible contributing factors to the sudden drop in verbal abuse and physical assaults reported by CDHB staff.

“One of those is: The discharge of patients for a significant number of physical assaults on staff.”

21. He said The Star’s information was that violent patients were in fact being told to leave hospital as a way of reducing the level, and amount, of violence against hospital staff. It had given the CDHB ample opportunity to respond to questions, and had pushed back his deadline for publication to accommodate that.

22. After the article was published he emailed Amy Milne's supervisor Karalyn van Deursen (after a conversation with her) offering her an opportunity to respond or write a letter to the editor. That was ultimately declined by Ms Van Deursen.

The Decision

23. The key issue is the meaning and weight The Star put on one sentence in the original OIA, and whether the newspaper wrongly interpreted it. Furthermore should it have been alerted to the misreading by comments from the CDHB’s media advisor, albeit those comments were not “on the record” and available for quotation?

24. Mr Clarke’s response cited from the original OIA, that a reason for the drop off in incidents was: “The discharge of patients for a significant number of physical assaults on staff.”

25. However the actual wording of the OIA on the FYI site reads: “The discharge of patientsresponsible (the Council’s emphasis) for a significant number of physical assaults on staff.”

26. The omission of the word “responsible” changes the meaning of the sentence from a description of the patients discharged (those responsible for assaults) to implying violence was the reason for their discharge.

27. The CDHB or its representative should have provided an on-the-record comment at least in relation to that issue, especially given the media adviser’s concerns that the article could otherwise be misleading.

28. The CDHB declined an opportunity to respond immediately, instead delaying in order to frame its answers as an OIA request. There was no obligation onThe Star to hold off on publication until its follow-up questions were answered, given an OIA could take up to a month or more to provide those answers.

(As an aside Mr Clarke points out that the CDHB did not respond to the OIA by the due date of June 16 and extended that to July 8.)

29. The newspaper took considerable efforts to include a reply from the CDHB, and in fact extended the deadline to accommodate a possible late afternoon response.

30. However, while the Council has some sympathy with the reporter - given in similar circumstances many reporters would see the decision to treat the request as an OIA as a tactic to scupper the article - she was warned by Ms Milne the story could be misleading.

31. Off the record or background information on the reasons for the drop in assaults was provided that should have raised a warning flag, in the absence of other corroborating information that patients had been discharged for being violent. That knowledge could and should have been used to inform the article.

32. However, there is some variation in the accounts of the details of the exchange between Ms Milne and the reporter.

33. In Mr Clarke’s account Ms Milne referred to patients being treated before they were discharged, and noted many were mental health patients that were not responsible for their actions so would not be “kicked out”.

34. But by Mr Clarke’s account she had said the response could not be used in the story because it was her interpretation from looking at the information.

35. Nevertheless, as noted above, Ms Milne’s concerns and comments should have raised doubts about the interpretation placed on the information in the OIA.

36. If The Star had been able to include other evidence of patients being discharged specifically because they were violent, the apparent misreading would have been less crucial.

37. Indeed Mr Clarke asserts: “Our information was that violent patients were in fact being told to leave hospital as a way of reducing the level, and amount of violence against hospital staff.”

38. But there is no reference to that additional evidence in the story other than the opinions of Mr Keown that ejecting abusive patients was the right tactic.

 

 

39. The Council considered carefully Mr Keown’s controversial views as reported. His comments seemed to reflect his opinion of how to treat abusive patients presenting at the hospital for treatment, not verification a policy to kick them out was in place and was being acted upon.

40. It is unfortunate the CDHB did not take up the option of a response or a letter to the editor offered by Mr Clarke. That undermines any grounds it may have for a complaint about the refusal by Mr Clarke to run a “correction” - since he did not believe the story was wrong.

Conclusion

41. The Council does not believe there are undertones of discrimination in the article against those with mental illnesses, as claimed by the CDHB but not argued in detail, in breach of principle 7.

42. The CDHB provided no detailed explanation of why it believed the article breached principles 4 (comment and fact), and 12 (corrections). The Council does not find grounds to uphold on those principles.

43. The complaint is upheld in relation to principle 1 as a breach of fairness and accuracy. In addition while the headline accurately reflects the article, so arguably principle 6 is not breached, it is an element of the breach in relation to principle 1. However, this matter could have been handled much better and more promptly by the CDHB communications team.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

Sir John Hansen took no part in the consideration of this complaint.