KATIE TUCHOLSKI AGAINST OTAGO DAILY TIMES

Case Number: 2183

Council Meeting: MARCH 2011

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Otago Daily Times

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy
Sensationalism
Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
Unfair Coverage

Katie Tucholski complained to the Press Council about a story in the Otago Daily Times (ODT), published on page 3 of the paper on December 30, 2010. The complaint is not upheld.

Background
Under the headline “Owner defends pet after bichon bitten” the article started in an ironic tone: “There may be more to a canine caper in Dunedin than a simple case of dog bites dog. In fact, it may be a case of dog bites dog to save dog”.
The story then continues: “Or, more exactly, Kaiser the German shepherd mauls Murphy the bichon frise to protect an unnamed cocker spaniel”.
It goes on that the above is the claim of Kaiser’s owner, Katie Tucholski, who is contesting a decision by the Dunedin City Council to classify Kaiser as a menacing dog which would require the dog to be neutered and kept caged or muzzled at all times.
On 10 November several dogs were being exercised at the Wakari Dog Park. Hearing barking, the bichon’s owner turned to see Kaiser with Murphy, her bichon, in his mouth.
The council animal control team had reported the events to the Dunedin City Council, stating the following: Mrs Young, the bichon’s owner, heard growling, and turned to see her dog in the mouth of Kaiser. She screamed, and the owner managed to get Kaiser to release Murphy. The smaller dog needed veterinary care and suffered extensive bruising and muscle damage.
However, Mrs Tucholski insisted that the attack was not unprovoked – she claimed that a third dog – a cocker spaniel – had been attacked by Murphy and that Kaiser had intervened to protect the cocker spaniel.
Kaiser had previously been involved in an incident after grabbing the arm of a member of the public in 2007, the report continued. At that time the staff had opted not to classify the dog as menacing after Mrs Tucholski had offered to keep the dog muzzled and on a lead when in a public place.
Mrs Tucholski had declined comment for the article and Mrs Young could not be contacted.

The Complaint
In her complaint, Mrs Tucholski, citing inaccuracies, claimed that publication of the report had caused her considerable stress, damaged her professional reputation, resulted in her receiving negative response from the public, and caused her considerable embarrassment and humiliation.
She said the report had not been well researched. It contained errors of fact; it was not Mrs Tucholski who was in the park at the time of the incident, it was her husband; the bichon was not “mauled” and there is no reference to that term in the animal control officer’s report; Murphy was never bitten – there was no broken skin; a menacing dog classification does not require a dog to be neutered or kept caged – that is at the council’s discretion.
Her other claims related to issues of lack of balance and unfairness and that the tone of the article was emotive. Another story published by the newspaper two weeks later about dog attacks in another town was much less sensational.
Through her lawyer, she had initially complained to the ODT.
She had declined to comment for the article as it was being written, prior to publication, because the case was under appeal.
Mrs Tucholski stated that the response of the publisher to her complaint was “paltry”.

The Response
The deputy editor stated that the reporter had contacted Mrs Tucholski when he was preparing the story from Dunedin City Council documents – she declined to comment.
Four weeks after publication the paper had received a letter from the complainant’s solicitors seeking a considerable damages payment.
The newspaper responded to this letter immediately, and said the lawyer’s letter would be answered fully after the return of the reporter from his holiday.
On 2 February a further response was sent to the complainant’s lawyers, noting that had the ODT been informed of any inaccuracies in the article at the time of publication, it would have published a correction at the time. It also offered to print a correction immediately. Further it offered an opportunity for Mr and Mrs Tucholski to present their perspective of events in an article.
At the time of responding to the complaint made to the Press Council, the newspaper had not had any response to these offers.

Discussion
The newspaper, told by the complainant’s lawyers of the level of Mrs Tucholski’s dismay and distress at the tone and content of the story, immediately advised that they would respond further when the editor had been able to check with the reporter, who was on leave.
The editor in the second response to the complainant, offered a correction and the opportunity for the complainant’s version of the story to be published.
Mrs Tucholski claims to the Press Council that she believed that such a correction would be inadequate and not placed in the paper in a place where it redressed the inaccuracies, lack of balance and damage to her reputation that she says have occurred as a result of the story.
It was unfortunate that the article referred to Mrs Tucholski as having been in control of the dog at the time of the incident, when she was not. However this information was contained in papers on the Council report where it stated “the owner … pulled [the dogs] teeth apart to release Murphy.” The offer of a prompt correction was declined by Mrs Tucholski.
The Press Council has noted the ODT’s fast response to the complainant when her lawyer contacted the paper. The editor acknowledged inaccuracy in the story, and offered Mrs Tucholski the opportunity to contribute to another report to address her concerns about balance.
While Mrs Tucholski does not like the “tone” of the article and has objected to words like “mauled” and “bitten”, given the serious injuries sustained by the small dog, the Council does not find that the tone or emphasis is excessive.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.