MONIKA CIOLEK AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2579

Council Meeting: JUNE 2017

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: null

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions
Privacy
Tragedies, Offensive Handling of
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Monika Ciolek of Wellington complained about a Stuff report of a homicide in Southland headlined, “Invercargill shaken by deadly love triangle”. The complaint was not upheld.

Background

A policeman was charged with the murder of his estranged wife and the attempted murder of the man she was living with. The tragedy instantly attracted wide interest because the alleged killer was a local policeman and he and his wife were well known in Invercargill. They were said to have been friends with the man she eventually went to live with, who had a wife and children. The two families used to go on outings together.

Stuff's report was built on background information about the accused man and the dead woman and impressions of them from those who knew them. These included comments such as, “He (the accused) just seemed like a nice guy” and, “(She was) a caring, happy great Mum”. Summarising these impressions, the reporter wrote: “He was the type of guy who took his kids on family outings to the river and helped out at local school fund-raisers. He wasn’t the type of guy who shoots his wife with a .22-calibre rifle before turning it on a man who was one of his close mates. But that is what allegedly happened on Tuesday evening.”

The Complaint

Monica Ciolek complained that the headline phrase “love triangle” was inappropriate and the report as a whole was inconsistent with guidelines published by the Ministry for Social Development for the reporting of family violence. It perpetrated three of the “myths” identified in the guidelines, namely that violence can be caused by a failed relationship, that violence can be associated with love, and that it is surprising that it could involve a police officer.

She was concerned that the story contained no comment from experts in family violence and further, that it appeared to her to “erase” one of the victims by not focusing on the woman’s life, work, interests or personality. This was in contrast to coverage of other crimes where the victim’s life and the community’s loss were normally the focus.

Together, she believed these faults had the effect of perpetuating the idea that family violence was a lesser crime than other assaults and killings. Though this was not the newspaper’s intention, its report fitted with a broader pattern that the guidelines were developed to counter.

She invoked the Press Council’s principles of accuracy, fairness and balance; the need to distinguish comment from fact; and the accuracy of headlines and captions. But her initial complaint did not specify any breaches.

The Response

Stuff's chief news director, Keith Lynch, said it was a distressing case and the report was compiled a short time after the incident. Until the case came to court little could be known about the relationship of those involved.

It was valid to note that a police officer was involved since that is a role that is supposed to protect and serve people and this one ended up doing the opposite. It was important to try to find out about him, his personality and his background. He had yet to plead to the charge or stand trial. That obviously affected the way the case could be reported.

The newspaper did its best to gather information about the victim but at that stage her family was reluctant to talk about her. If they had been more forthcoming the focus of the story might have been more strongly on her but it included as much information on her as could be gathered.

He believed the term “love triangle” was an accurate description of the case for headline purposes, and he did not believe it diminished the seriousness of the story, nor had any of the reported facts. While Fairfax was aware of the Ministry of Social Development’s guidelines, Mr Lynch said, "Our journalism is not bound by a third party, unbidden, developing its own rules for media reporting. It would be a strange and undesirable state of affairs if publishers were expected to abide by reporting restrictions issued autonomously by government departments without media engagement.”

The Complainant Responded

Ms Ciolek provided specific examples of statements she believed breached the Press Council’s principles. It was factually inaccurate, she suggested, to imply that taking children on outings or participating in community events was incompatible with committing family violence or domestic murder. It was unfair, unbalanced, misleading and discriminatory by social status to suggest domestic violence and murder only affect some types of families. It was unethical and against the public interest to perpetuate such myths.

The term “love triangle;” was speculation and its use blurred comment and fact. There was no basis for an assumption there was “love” between the accused man and his victim. Rather the fact they had separated and he is alleged to have shot her suggested otherwise. Without “definitive facts showing there was ‘love’, it is inaccurate, unfair, unethical and against the public interest to link this violence either to love or relationship failures. It is not normal to hurt someone you love, and most relationships end without fear or violence. It was also insensitive to speculate about ‘love’ after an alleged murder and it breached the principle that cases involving personal grief should be approached with sympathy and discretion.

Given the prevalence of family violence in New Zealand, Ms Ciolek says, this story should have included additional information in the public interest. For example, that the 18 months following separation is the most dangerous time for victims of domestic violence. The report should also have given contacts where victims or perpetrators of domestic violence could seek help.

The Decision

The Ministry of Social Development’s guidelines for reporting domestic violence do not appear to have been drawn up in consultation with news media. This case illustrates what could happen if a code written for a social purpose had to be applied in all human circumstances. The complainant objected to the description of this crime as a “love triangle” since the guidelines said, "It is not normal behaviour to bash or murder someone if you love them". It is not normal, but love is possibly a more complex emotion than the Ministry has allowed.

The complainant suggested anything favourable said about a man charged with the murder of his wife would be a breach of the Ministry's guidelines. The complainant cited favourable references to the accused man as breaches of the principle of accuracy, fairness and balance on the grounds that they perpetuated “myths” about domestic violence. The Press Council was not in a position to judge whether the statements reported are myths or not but there was no suggestion they were not an accurate report of what acquaintances had said about the man. The Council did not agree that newspapers should be forbidden to report views such as these.

Nor did the Council consider the term “love triangle” to be mixing comment and fact. The facts were a man had been charged with killing his wife when she was with another man, and with attempting to kill the other man. To describe this as a “love triangle” was not a comment, it was a common summary of this sort of situation and its use in the headline fairly reflected the story. The Council did not believe the term would have added to the grief of the families involved.

It was not accurate or fair to suggest the story "erased" the victim by failing to focus on her life, interests, work and personality. The story included details of her life in all of those respects. The accused man was the primary focus, the editor explained, because the victim's family was reluctant to talk about her.

Finally, Ms Ciolek suggested the story should have been “balanced” with generalised information about family violence and contact numbers for assistance. The Council strongly disagreed. This was a report of a crime in which the accused had yet to plead, let alone come to trial. To put in the report the information the complainant suggested would have implied this was not a one-off act of violence. That could not only have been inaccurate, it would have been unfair to the accused man and misleading for readers since neither Stuff’s reporter nor the complainant knew whether it was true.

This case was considered purely on the Press Council’s principles and on each of those cited, the complaint was not upheld.

It was clear from industry members present that there was a general unawareness of the guidelines and apparently no media consultation in regard to them.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Mark Stevens, John Roughan and Tim Watkin.

Hank Schouten stood down to maintain public member majority.