COMPLAINT AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2568

Council Meeting: MARCH 2017

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Headlines and Captions
Privacy
Unfair Coverage

Overview

This is a complaint about an article published on Stuff on February 1, 2017. The article was titled ‘Better cellphone coverage may have helped save a man’s life on Otago Central Rail Trail’. It outlines the circumstances around a man’s death in December 2016 on the rail trail. The story was based on comments made by a Volunteer Fire Brigade and Community Board Member (Robert Hazlett) about the impact of poor cellphone coverage on the incident. When the comments from Mr Hazlett were found to be incorrect, the story was edited and republished on February 16 2017 and again on February 21 2017. The complaint is under Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; Principle (2) Privacy; Principle (6) Headlines and Captions and Principle (12) Corrections.

The Complaint

The complainant’s husband died in December 2016 on the rail trail. She providedThe Press with information that contradicted the comments made by Mr Hazlett, including that cellphone coverage was not a factor in her husband’s death. Based on her information, the article was edited and republished twice. Her complaint centers on the inaccuracy of the reporting of this incident.

The complainant also argues her privacy has been breached in the reporting of the incident and the headline and caption was inaccurate. While two corrections have been made, the complainant would like the complete story retracted.

The Response

The Press Deputy Editor for Canterbury and Otago, Kamala Hayman rejects this complaint. In regard to Principle (1) she defends the actions of her reporter. She states the reporter tried to verify the comments made by Mr Hazlett and quoted, in good faith, a person ‘who could have reasonably been expected to have an accurate account of the situation.’

Hayman also rejects that the article is a breach of privacy as the husband is not named and no identifiable information about the family was included.

Given the headline was amended to ‘Cyclist Dies on Otago Central Trail’, Hayman argues this is now an accurate statement. Hayman also states her newsroom took steps as soon as possible to correct the story as soon as they became aware the details provided by Mr Hazlett were incorrect. Further, she argues that the article has been revised in line with other reports of sudden deaths in public places.

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The Decision

The Press Council is in no doubt that the reporting of this incident will have caused the complainant distress.

In regard to the complaint against Principles (1), (6) and (12), the Council is divided on whether good standards of journalism were followed in the original reporting of this article. While the majority of the Council felt the reporter had taken sufficient steps to check the initial account – and noted none of those contacted (including the police and telco providers) gave him any reason to disbelieve it, three members (Jo Cribb, Marie Shroff and Liz Brown) acknowledge that the reporter attempted unsuccessfully to verify the facts, but are of the view that the reporter should not have relied solely on an unverified second-hand account as the source of facts for the incident.

However, all members of the Council acknowledge the timely revisions that were made byStuff. These included revising the headline and including a statement that acknowledged the inaccuracy of the previous version. One last mention of the inaccurate article remains in the current web address for the article. The Council expects thatStuff will seek to remedy this immediately.

In regard to the complaint against Principle (2), no personal information was included in the article that could identify the complainant, her family or her husband so their privacy was protected.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Marie Shroff, Mark Stevens, Vernon Small and Tim Watkin.