DAKOTA HEMMINGSON AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2602

Council Meeting: JULY 2017

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Dakota Hemmingson complains a New Zealand Herald story about her disqualification from a Mediaworks competition breaches principles 1 (Accuracy, Fairness and Balance), 4 (Comment and Fact) and 12 (Corrections).

The complaint is upheld.

Background

The Herald story covered Ms Hemmingson’s disqualification from a Mediaworks radio competition to win free cosmetic surgery.

Disqualification occurred after the company operating the voting platform alerted Mediaworks to what it called fraudulent voting activity.

Ms Hemmingson, who was initially deemed to have received most votes, was disqualified and the contestant who received the next most votes won the surgery.

Mediaworks reserved its right to take further action in regard to the voting, and ‘evidence you [Hemmingson] have provided of obtaining unlawful access to the voting website’.

The Herald’s article included social media posts from Ms Hemmingson, saying she hadn’t been told of the situation until it was too late to remedy it, as well as interview comments.

Those comments including one where Ms Hemmingson apparently told the Herald she had altered her computer settings to turn off cookies (small files stored on a user’s computer), allowing her to vote more than once a day. The competition allowed only one vote per person.

The Complaint

Primarily, Ms Hemmingson’s complaint is one of being misquoted.

She says she did not say she’d altered her cookies to allow multiple votes. Instead, she said, a friend had told her this was possible. She didn’t change her cookies and, in fact, did not even own a computer.

And she says the quote, “It’s just hurtful. All I want is an apology,” was only a part quote, and she actually went on to say, “... for how they dealt with it”.

A secondary plank of the complaint is that she was told she could review the article before it was published, but wasn’t given this opportunity.

After being challenged on the above point, Ms Hemmingson was able to provide screengrabs of an exchange between herself and aHerald staffer where, as well as being invited to be involved in the story, she was told she could read the story first.

Ms Hemmingson also pointed out that the story attracted more than 1000 Facebook comments.

The Response

The Herald, after being contacted by Ms Hemmingson, stood by the notes but added to the story that she disputed them.

Senior newsroom editor Oskar Alley responded to the Press Council for the Herald.

In regard to Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, Mr Alley reiterated that the interview notes were reviewed and that the Herald stood by the content.

Specifically, he says the interview notes show the following exchange:

Reporter: “So you don’t feel you cheated in any way to gain these extra votes?”

Ms Hemmingson: “No, apart from the cookies thing. If you turn off your cookies, you can vote more than once a day, but I don’t think that was enough to make that much of a difference.”

Her response to the reporter’s question was considered by the Herald to be confirmation she had breached the rules.

On the matter of whether the apology quote was abridged, Mr Alley said the full quote as noted by the reporter was used.

Mr Alley, in his initial comment to the Press Council, initially stressed no promise was made to Ms Hemmingson that she could review the content prior to publication. It was againstHerald policy.

In his second response, he changed the Herald’s stance, acknowledging that a junior social media producer for theHerald - untrained in journalism - had suggested Ms Hemmingson could review the article. He stressed, however, that the social producer did not have the authority to give such an assurance and that the reporter had advised Ms Hemmingson of the Herald’s actual policy of not allowing pre-publication review.

His second response to the Council also saw the Herald back down on another point:

Mr Alley initially claimed Ms Hemmingson was wrong in her count of Facebook comments the story had attracted. He argued it was only 445 but later conceded that, for a period of time, comments had topped 1000. The number was then reduced after some comments - including those critical of Ms Hemmingson - were culled in post-moderation.

The Decision

The Council is less concerned about the partial quote allegation. It does not significantly change its meaning or the tenor of the story.

On the ‘cookies’ quote, however, the question is less about whether Ms Hemmingson was misquoted than it is about the interpretation of the quote.

Mr Alley believes it provided the Herald with confirmation of Ms Hemmingson’s vote tampering. Ms Hemmingson believes she was referring to the fact it was possible and, had others done it, the impact on the final competition result would have been negligible.

The Council has some sympathy for Mr Alley taking a strict interpretation of the quote. But, equally, it accepts that if the friend’s cookie tampering tip had come up during the interview, then seeking further clarification on exactly whether this tip had been acted on by Ms Hemmingson would have been appropriate.

Ironically, review of the content prior to publication would likely have resolved any misinterpretation of the quote and it is here that the matter of whether Ms Hemmingson was right to expect that or not comes into play.

The Council recognizes what is generally accepted newsroom policy around not granting interview subjects pre-publication review of articles.

Notwithstanding that, it is absolutely clear here that Ms Hemmingson was given such an undertaking, albeit from a junior staffer without the appropriate authority.

It would be wrong of the Herald to expect Ms Hemmingson to understand the organisational structure of its newsroom. As far as she was concerned, aHerald staffer who invited her to be involved with the story, assured her she’d get to see it first.

It’s also noted that the Herald cited the social producer’s lack of any journalism training as a factor. This is something theHerald might like to consider in its recruitment of newsroom staff.

While the complaints of breaches of Principles 4 and 12 are not relevant (the article was clearly a news story rather than a comment piece and a correction would not have been warranted in a case where theHerald considered it had nothing incorrect), the matter of Principle 1 is relevant.

The Council is inclined to accept the reporter’s account of the interview, ie the accuracy of the quotes, despite an obvious need for the reporter to have been more thorough in clarifying the cookies comment.

In regard to matters of fairness, however, it was clear that a representative of theHerald played a part in getting Ms Hemmingson involved in the story and, in doing so, rightly or wrongly, assured her she’d be able to review the article ahead of publication. She was not given this opportunity once offered.

The complaint re Principle 1 is upheld.

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

John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.