NICK PAK AGANST WAIKATO TIMES

Case Number: 2545

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2016

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Waikato Times

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Discrimination
Headlines and Captions
Unfair Coverage

Overview

On September 12, 2016 the Waikato Times published a front page article entitled “Bums run riot on hospital sanitiser”. The article was based on information received by the publication through an Official Information Act request to the hospital about theft of items from the hospital or patients. The article states that a major contributor to the loss was the theft of Sterigel hand sanitiser.

The publication chose to focus the opening paragraphs on the hand sanitiser theft although it did have a box article about the theft of a patient’s [computer] tablet from her hospital room. The hospital’s security head had confirmed that the hand sanitiser was targeted by rough sleepers because when mixed with the Fanta drink, it provided a high equivalent to drinking “rocket fuel”.

The Complaint

On the same day the article was published, Nick Pak by email complained to Waikato Times that the article had breached article 6 (Headlines and Captions).

Mr Pak argues that the article discusses the theft of personal goods from hospital grounds without any evidence to back up this assertion that “bums” are responsible. The headline, and the majority of the article in relation to homeless people, is inaccurate.

Mr Pak argues that the article gives an inaccurate impression that the theft of Sterigel was a major contributor to the total monetary loss of $27,000 through theft when the editor has confirmed that the loss caused by Sterigel theft cannot be quantified. It would have been more useful to the reader to provide context around this point.

Moreover, Mr Pak finds the use of the word “bum” derogatory. The headline reinforces negative public attitudes against homeless people.

Mr Pak said that there was no testimony “from the other side”. He thought the article should have included some comment from the DHB Alcohol and Drug Addiction Service.

Finally, Mr Pak would like the Waikato Times to undertake a series of interviews with homeless people.

In his complaint to the Press Council, Mr Pak also argues that the article breaches principles related to Accuracy, Fairness and Balance (1) and Discrimination and Diversity (7).

The Response

Wayne Timmo, Chief News Director, Waikato, Fairfax Media responded to Mr Pak’s complaint on the same day (12 September). Mr Timmo agreed with Mr Pak that the article had two strands – the theft of the hand sanitiser and the general thefts. However, given the article’s lead is the hand sanitiser theft by some homeless people, the headline was accurate in that it depicted the story.

Mr Timmo argues that the Oxford dictionary definition of ‘bum’ is a vagrant or a lazy or worthless person. People of no fixed abode stealing hand sanitiser from the hospital to become intoxicated seem to fit the definition well. The item was a news story. The media’s role in such a story is to report news and not shape public attitudes towards a certain sector of society. Shaping public perceptions is done through an opinion piece.

In regards to Mr Pak’s complaint about context, in particular seeking a quantifiable amount of stolen Sterigel sanitiser, Mr Timmo agrees that to attempt an estimate based on the overall cost of all thefts would be unsound statistical practice. For that reason the publication did not do it themselves in the story.

The response from the hospital to the publication’s OIA request did not include monetary totals but Sterigel theft was listed as “numerous and across all wards.” Therefore, the gauge for the level of Sterigel theft was based on the interview with David Wilson, head of hospital security, and his estimate of one such incident per day. The vagrant nature is a key fact in the story. Mr Timmo also provided Mr Pak a number of links to articles in which the publication covered the homelessness issue.

On 13 September, Mr Pak responded by email to Mr Timmo arguing that he still disagreed with the headline, saying however that the justification for the article was “valid enough”. But on 14 September he responded to Mr Timmo with a reference to another definition of the word “bum” and therefore disputing the definition put forward by Mr Timmo. In short, he said the word “bum” had degenerated from its original meaning “a vagabond” to now meaning a “moneyless, prideless, filthy, hopeless derelict and habitual drunkard.” The headline is therefore offensive and he seeks an apology from the publication.

The Decision

Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance

Information for this article came from an OIA request to the hospital about thefts from the hospital or patients. As Mr Timmo acknowledges, it was through the process of receiving the information that the journalist has seen the angle of their story – the theft of Sterigel sanitiser by some people in order to get intoxicated. The story’s parameters are set by the OIA information they received. The publication interviewed the head of security, who provided information for the article from his own experience and also that of his staff. The Council has no reason to doubt the accuracy of Mr Wilson’s account.

The “fair voice” in these circumstances would be those who are stealing the sanitiser not another hospital expert who might be able to provide some further reasoning.

In terms of accuracy Mr Pak makes an interesting point around the use of the word “major” in paragraph 2, given that no statistical evidence is provided in the article. However a close reading of the article makes clear the full extent of the sanitiser thefts.

The Council accepts that the thefts, occurring on a daily basis across all wards and public areas and over a period of three years, would justify the use of the word “major”.

The complaint against Principle 1 is not upheld.

Principle 7: Discrimination and Diversity / Principle 6: Headlines and Captions

The Council does not believe the article itself places gratuitous emphasis on any sector of society – the article was about the theft of sanitiser by some members of a sector of society. The first-hand account from Mr Wilson forms the body of the story.

The crux of the matter rests with the definition of the word “bum” although some Council members believed the phrase “run riot” in the headline also pushed the boundary. The headline does not fully fit the tone of the story which in its full context is accurate.

Some members of the Council agreed with Mr Pak’s reference that the word “bum” has degenerated over the years. The word is anachronistic and does push the boundary. Even with the reference provided by Mr Pak, the editor believes that the word accurately describes those Mr Wilson refers to as homeless. It is hard for anyone to know why these individuals steal and then get high on hand sanitiser. Interviewing one these individuals is the only way we can really know which definition of “bum” best reflects their situation.

The publication uses the terms “homeless” and “rough sleepers” to describe the thieves. However, it chooses to use the word “bum” in its heading and the publication presumes that the words are interchangeable and have the same or similar meaning.The editor made a headline editorial decision based on his Oxford Dictionary reference point. The editor notes he is arguing the point with Mr Pak as “it’s the start of a slippery slope to extinguish … freedom of expression on a single word.”

The complaints against Principles 6 and 7 are not upheld.

Press Council members considering tis complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Ruth Buddicom, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Tim Watkin.