MARTIN BATES AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2432

Council Meeting: MAY 2015

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Misleading

Martin Bates complains that a “Breaking News” banner headline and one-sentence article published briefly on Stuff breaches the Press Council’s principles of accuracy, fairness and balance.
The Complaint
Mr Bates complains that the banner headline and one-sentence article reading “A Tsunami alert has been issued for New Zealand”, or a very similar wording, was inaccurate and breached the principles referred to above. Although no date is given by Mr Bates, it appears to be common ground that what is complained of was posted online on 30 March 2015. Mr Bates complained there was no source for the one-liner, nor any link. Nor was there a differentiation between an alert and a warning. Given the potential speed of such events, he says he was worried for his father, who was on holiday in a coastal area. He rang Civil Defence and was assured there was no warning for New Zealand. He says about 15 minutes later the article was edited and updated to include that it was a Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre advisory and no Pacific-wide tsunami was expected. It is his view that Stuff Online should have waited to run the story when there was a source and Civil defence advice. He said it was misleading to run what was said to be an urgent banner without source, and it was misleading, alarmist and poor journalism. He stated he could not access the original article, and he only had a copy of the most recently updated article which is not the subject of the complaint.
Mr Bates also complains that the response from Stuff Online when he complained to them was offhand and did not take the matter seriously enough.
The Response
Mr Crewdson, the editor of stuff.co.nz, provided a fulsome response. He states that at 12.55pm on March 30, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre issued a threat message saying an earthquake of magnitude 7.6, at a depth of 33 kilometres, had struck Papua New Guinea. It said hazardous tsunami waves were possible for coasts located within 1000 kilometres of the epicentre. The message gave estimated times of arrival of tsunami waves in countries including New Zealand and Australia.
He goes on to say that Stuff is an international, as well as national, news site. A large earthquake in the Pacific that prompts such a risk is a valid story that demands prompt coverage. He considered a quake of such magnitude should be covered, regardless of any risk to New Zealand. The duty home page editor decided it warranted a “Breaking News” alert recording the magnitude and location of the earthquake, and the possibility of tsunami waves. It is clear Mr Bates’ complaint was sparked by that “Breaking News” alert on the desktop site. He also explained that for technical reasons stuff.co.nz does not have an archive of desktop “Breaking News” alert messages. He explained that unlike story files, which are permanently archived, the “Breaking News” alert is a piece of code on the site that is overwritten each time it is used.
He says that the staff member’s recollection is that the alert did not refer to NZ. He said this is reinforced by the content of the initial story published at 1.06pm under the headline, “A magnitude 7.7 quake hits near Papua New Guinea”. Because few details were available at that stage, the entire story read: “A tsunami alert is in place after an undersea 7.7 magnitude quake in the New Ireland region of Papua New Guinea”. He denies Mr Bates’ claim that the Breaking News alert was accompanied by a one-sentence article featuring a tsunami alert for New Zealand. He said there was no reference to a threat for New Zealand in that first story. He then sets out a fuller story at 1.13pm. He points out that within 11 minutes of the initial story, which referred only to a quake in Papua New Guinea and legitimate critical tsunami information statement that was issued, the story had sufficient local detail to address the risk to New Zealanders. He considered this to be a fast and diligent response to breaking news.
Decision
There is obviously a dispute between what Mr Bates says and what the editor says. Mr Bates said the line was, “A Tsunami alert has been issued for New Zealand”, or a very similar wording. It is apparent that he is not certain as to what exactly appeared. The recollection of the staff member responsible at stuff.co.nz was that the Breaking News alert did not refer to New Zealand, reinforced by the content of the initial story. It is impossible for the Council to resolve that issue of fact, particularly where there is a lack of certainty from both parties.
In any event, this was clearly a fast-breaking story of importance and significance. We are satisfied that stuff.co.nz responded to it in a responsible and measured way. There are no breaches of the principles as alleged by Mr Bates. The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Vernon Small and Mark Stevens.