Case Number: 948

Council Meeting: NOVEMBER 2003

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Advertisements
Editorial Discretion

A subscriber to the Dominion Post and former staff member James H Hartley complained about stories of winners in a Dominion Post competition being featured in the clearly labelled News Section of the newspaper on Monday September 8 and Saturday September 13.

The complaint has not been upheld.

Mr Hartley originally complained to the editor in dismay about what he called the increasing practice of the Dominion-Post using space in the news columns to promote "house" competitions and other marketing ploys. "I have grown used to this practice in throw-away papers but feel there is no place for it in a metropolitan newspaper that regards itself as one of the best in New Zealand," he wrote to the editor.

He said he realised the pressures from the requests of advertising and marketing departments, but he felt it incumbent on the news executives and editorial staff to resist them. Would the editor place the results of a breakfast cereal manufacturer's competition in the news columns, he asked, and thought not.

Unsatisfied with the editor's view that the competition and the results were news, he complained to the Press Council about what he saw as in-house marketing promotions masquerading as news in the news columns. Such stories in his view were clearly advertorial, and the editor was guilty of allowing them to taint the news columns.

The editor wrote to Mr Hartley, saying that he took his point that marketing should not be confused with news, but the competition was news as it had attracted phenomenal interest - just under 500,000 entries - and all those who entered wanted to know if they had been successful. He also defended the stories of people having unexpected good fortune as being interesting and well-written. He advanced the same reasoning to the Press Council.

While the Press Council is charged in one of its responsibilities with maintaining the New Zealand press "in accordance with the highest professional standards" that dictum applies to the ethical practice of journalism. In the stories cited, there is no issue about the accuracy, balance or fairness of the stories for any of the people reported, or any party affected by the stories.

The matter of news judgement is not for the Press Council to decide. That is an issue for the editor, who in this case has defended what he describes as the justifiable news content of the stories, and for the readers who respond to what their newspaper is presenting to them. They can either support or turn away from the newspaper whose editorial integrity they perceive being preserved, or possibly given away.

Most journalists and newspapers will know of the need for the commercial promotion of their
work - in Britain an outbreak of promotional fever among the fiercely competitive national newspapers has seen even the august broadsheets with lotteries, fantasy football games and other contest enticements on their front pages. Locally, newspapers regularly run stories about causes and promotional activity they support.

The Press Council can only warn of the clear need for purely promotional activity to be made separate and obvious to the reader, with no exception for a newspaper’s own promotions, and for news stories to obey all the requirements of the ethical practice of news presentation.

In this case the Council does not hold any standard has been breached.

Ms Suzanne Carty took no part in the consideration of this complaint.