Case Number: 986

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2004

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: The Press

Ruling Categories: Comment and Fact

A complaint has been made that an article published in The Press relating to an Education Review Office report on Samoan pre-school Tafesilafa’i contravenes Press Council principles upholding accuracy and clear distinction between comment and fact.

Pre-school management committee chairwoman Maria Frew, Catholic Diocese financial administrator Paddy Beban and Catholic Education Office manager Mike Nolan say that the tone of the article and headline is negative, the detail misrepresents the true situation and, by way of inaccuracies and omissions, the piece has hurt the mana of the pre-school community.

For the following reasons the complaint is part upheld.

The April 5, 2004 story “Bad report for Samoan pre-school” is a straightforward summary of the review office’s significant findings. It leads with a summary of one review finding, reporting that the education of the pre-schoolers is being jeopardised by inadequate space and resources. It then states that the school has been “told it must move to bigger premises if it is to provide a quality education”.

The complainants argue that reporting the school has been told it must move to bigger premises to provide quality education is incorrect. They say the sentence, “if the centre is still operating from the present premises at the end of 2004, ERO will conduct another review at that time”, has a quite different meaning. Rather than stating a requirement in such an eventuality, they say, the office has called for strategic planning to resolve things.

Other complaints are that the use of the word “savage” to describe an earlier review finding (2002) was unjustified, given that that report praised the school’s commitment to good education; and that the headline “Bad report for Samoan pre-school” unfairly reflects the negative, failing to be a fair summary of the 2004 report, which found most matters identified in the 2002 report had been successfully addressed.

Although the Press article confirmed the addressing of the 2002 issues, by using “concerns” when the report had used “matters”, and by omitting “successfully” from the phrase “successfully addressed”, it had failed to reflect the report’s positive tenor, described in the report as “a picture of a successful educational community that is working through matters”.

Press editor Paul Thompson concedes the report did not specifically say the school must move to bigger premises but says it was clear that the management committee was working towards a new school and that it was facing difficulties. Had the committee spokeswoman returned several calls made to her by the paper, he says, she “could have addressed this point”. The committee was being “over sensitive” to regard the paragraph as negative.

Mr Thompson defends the use of “savage” in the 2002 report, saying the report “in effect” said the school provided an unsafe environment for children and was not giving them high quality education. The omission of “successfully” did not disguise the point made in the story that the review office acknowledged progress had been made; and the headline reflected the fact that the review office continued to have serious concerns. He saw no reason to apologise.

The concerns expressed are understandable from the perspective of a small school struggling to establish itself. Despite identifying various areas needing improvement, from a need for more qualified staff to better financial management, the review office report also came up with significant positives. Most notably, it found that the pre-school had addressed most of the matters of concern raised by the earlier report. This is not a report of a substandard school, but of a young venture finding its way.

The circumstances required careful attention to accuracy in the reporting. The paper’s conclusion that the school had been told that it must move to bigger premises was based on a wrong inference. The report clearly enunciates that, “in the event that the centre does not relocate, it will be imperative that management substantially improves the physical environment and resources” – a quite different meaning. This part of the complaint, about accuracy, is therefore upheld.

The complaint that the headline is unduly negative, however, fails. In an abbreviated space for summary, it is hard to imagine how the paper could have better described the major findings. Despite the positives, the report was not a good one. The use of “savage” is similarly not ruled against, though it pushed the boundaries of acceptance. The newspaper might be careful about using over-extravagant language – in all but the loosest colloquial usage, “savage” means “barbarous”. But the 2002 report, along with praise for the “happy and settled” state of the children, did have a serious list of concerns, including about safety of climbing equipment and the dearth of qualified staff.

The further complaints about substituting “matters” with “concerns”, and the omission of “successfully”, cannot be read to have seriously affected correct understanding.

Apart from the issue of accuracy, the Press needs to take care in any critical report to also well report the positives: it is questionable whether one favourable sentence toward the end achieved this fairly. But it should not be upbraided for zoning in on the criticisms. The language was, one word aside (“savage”), dispassionate. It is a substantial part of a newspaper’s job to identify things that are wrong or need rectifying. A mistake often made by those outside the industry, is to view this task as “being negative”, when in fact the paper is pursuing the important and the newsworthy with a positive intent.

The complaint pertaining to accuracy is upheld; the other elements of the complaint are not.