GEOFF SMITH AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2475

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 2015

Verdict: Not Upheld with Dissent

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Headlines and Captions
Photographs
Tragedies, Offensive Handling of

Overview

Geoff Smith complains that the title of an article published on the Stuff website on September 3, 2015 was misleading and in breach of Press Council Principle 6. He also complains that Stuff should not have published the accompanying photographs and is in breach of Principle 11.

The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

Background

On September 3, 2015 the Stuff website published a news article headed “Refugee crisis: Prime Minister John Key stands firm on NZA refugee quota.” About half way through the article were two paragraphs describing the world-wide impact of photographs of the body of a two-year-old Syrian refugee.Towards the end of the article were two of the photographs, one showing a Turkish official carrying the body of the dead boy, and one showing the boy’s body lying on the beach. There was a warning “WARNING: THIS STORY CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGES BELOW” near the beginning of the article.

The Complaint

Mr Smith originally complained that the photographs were disturbing and should not have been published. He said “we are well aware of the issues of the current refugee crisis and think that New Zealand should do more. However, we don’t need a graphic photo of a dead child to help us form this opinion.”He regarded the warning as insufficient and said it was not at the beginning of the article and could easily be missed if the reader was skim-reading the story. It was not possible to avoid seeing the photographs if a reader wanted to read to the end of the article.

On further consideration, Mr Smith also complained that the headline only reflected John Key’s views on the refugee quota and not the content of the second part of the article. He said Mr Key’s views were a separate, though related issue and “a link to the “boy on the beach” story would have been more appropriate.” He repeated his concern that there was no warning at the start of the article about the nature of the graphic content in the second half of it.

The Response

Patrick Crewdson, editor of Stuff, responded to Mr Smith’s complaint. He explained that the decision to publish the images had been taken only after lengthy deliberation.By the time he and senior staff reached the decision to publish, it was clear that the photographs had been widely reprinted internationally and that they would have an impact on refugee policy formation in New Zealand.

He said “The images were confronting, horrifying, and heart-breaking – but sometimes reality is harsh and media outlets do their audiences a disservice if they shirk from portraying that. Readers don’t have the right not to be displeased by the real-life events the news depicts.” Photographs have a power and impact that words cannot always match, and these photographs were a catalyst for greater discussion and action. The photographs and the story behind them were inextricably linked to the questions Mr Key was answering about New Zealand’s refugee quota.

The headline was accurate based on the content of the article. Mr Crewdson says that Mr Key’s position on the refugee quota was now softening and the public outcry fuelled by the publication of the photographs was a major contributing factor.

Mr Crewdson considers there was adequate warning about the graphic content of the photographs.They were well signposted at the top of the story (in the second paragraph). Steps had been taken to ensure that the images would not be visible at home page or section level, so that readers had to open the story, with its prominent warning, before seeing the images. In addition, they were not visible on first opening the story – a reader would have to scroll down a considerable way before they became visible.

Mr Crewdson summarised his submission by saying that “with these images we had a duty to depict the reality of the world, even if that meant readers could not “unsee” it”. The images were relevant to the story with which they were included, and they were adequately signposted for readers who chose to avoid them.

The Decision

There is no doubt that the photographs in question are disturbing and powerful images that depict very clearly the pathos and horror of the refugee crisis. They bear comparison with the images of the naked nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phoc fleeing a napalm attack in the Vietnam War and are all the more poignant for the absence of any overt signs of violence. Like the Vietnam War images, they have had an effect on the policies of nations across the world.

The Press Council is of the view that the photographs are important images and that their publication was entirely justified. The fact that they have been circulated worldwide is relevant only as an indicator of their significance and has not otherwise been taken into account. It is now clear, and was becoming clear at the time of their publication, that they affected New Zealanders’ attitudes towards the refugee crisis and contributed to a change in policy.

The only question under Principle 11, therefore, is whether Stuff complied with its obligation to take care in photographic image selection and treatment.

It is clear that Mr Crewdson and his senior staff gave considerable thought to the impact of the photographs and the decision to publish was based on a sense of their responsibilities as journalists and not on any desire for sensation.The photographs were positioned where they could not easily be seen by accident, and a warning about them was prominently placed near the beginning of the article, in a position from which the images themselves could not be seen. The warning is in capital letters and is well separated from the surrounding text. It is difficult to see how any reader could miss it, even if skim-reading.

Mr Smith also complains that the headline does not reflect the content of the article. Under Principle 6, headlines must accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to cover. Only two paragraphs of the article in question relate to the photographs, and all the rest of it concerns New Zealand’s policy on accepting refugees. Moreover the photographs and the written material about them are relevant to refugee quota policy and the pressure on politicians to adjust policies in response to the number and condition of refugees.

The Press Council considers there was no breach of either Principle 6 or Principle 11 and the complaint is not upheld. John Roughan dissented from this decision,

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Vernon Small, and Tim Watkin.

Mark Stevens took no part in the consideration of this complaint.