NZQA AGAINST NORTH & SOUTH

Case Number: 2212

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2011

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: North & South

Ruling Categories: Comment and Fact
Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

The New Zealand Qualifications Authority has complained that an article in North & South magazine about NCEA breached Press Council Principles 1 and 4 concerning accuracy, fairness and balance; and comment and fact. The complaint is upheld on Principle 1 in relation to fairness and balance and not upheld on Principle 4.

Background
NCEA is the National Certificate of Education Achievement, administered by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA).
The article ‘Blowing the whistle on NCEA’, published in July 2011, accuses NZQA of ‘fudging the figures’ to make it appear that its moderators and teachers are moving towards closer agreement on the internal assessment of students’ work.
The standfirst said ‘Scaling, cheating, fudging figures, manipulating marks – and that’s just the administrators. Is NCEA corrupting everyone it touches?’
The magazine quoted an anonymous source, ‘Teacher Pete’, who attended a workshop run by an NZQA moderator where participants heard that the Education Minister was concerned at the level of disagreement between moderator and teacher-assessment of internally assessed work. Teacher Pete claimed the moderator told workshop participants that the NZQA response was to ‘fudge the figures for the minister’ and ignore some of the disagreements and repeated errors.
This allegation is the basis of the article. North & South also quoted other critics of NCEA, including a former accounting teacher and NCEA marker, who analyses and markets NCEA data. He said the NZQA was simply putting ‘spin’ on the internal assessments. More schools were agreeing with the moderators’ marking because teachers were now more careful about what and when they submit the work.
It also quoted the principal of Auckland Grammar School, whose school has opted out of NCEA in favour of the Cambridge International Examinations (CIE). His view was that NCEA was not transparent, valid or fair and that incorrect internal assessments had been going on for years.

Complaint
NZQA chief executive Dr Karen Poutasi complained to the magazine and then to the Press Council that the allegations by the magazine’s source were false. She said the teacher’s claims were denied by the moderator who ran the workshop and by other audience members contacted by NZQA.
The article was an attack on NCEA and specifically an attack on NZQA’s ethics and honesty in implementing it.
She said the article was unfair and unbalanced. NZQA was not given the opportunity by North & South to respond to the allegations made by the teacher or any of the criticisms of NCEA.
The article was one-sided because it published comments only from critics of NCEA. She dismissed the magazine’s view that there was no point in contacting NZQA because it had avoided interview requests in the past. This was an unfair assumption.
Dr Poutasi complained that the article had published only favourable views about CIE and only negative views of NCEA. This was further evidence of lack of balance.
The article had failed to distinguish between comment and fact. The writer was opposed to NCEA and had been expressing personal views.

The Magazine’s Response
North & South editor Virginia Larson said the magazine stood behind the claims by their source, which had been verified by other teachers attending the workshop. Teacher Pete was also prepared to swear an affidavit in support of his statements.
Ms Larson said the article had relied on the NZQA annual report and the organisation’s own statistics and there was no obligation on the magazine to seek comment from NZQA. The authority was responsible for NCEA and therefore bound to support it. She said the information from the NZQA annual report included in the article adequately covered the NZQA view.
Further, Ms Larson said that in the 15 years that she had been editor no NZQA chief executive had responded to requests from North & South for an interview. The writer of the present article had tried without much success to deal with NZQA in 2007.
She considered the article to be balanced, fair and accurate. She said there was an exception to the Press Council’s principle 1 for long-running issues in the national interest, where every side could not reasonably be covered on every occasion. This was such an issue.
Balance didn’t mean that North & South had to occasionally publish articles depicting NCEA in a positive light, but to publish robust, well-researched coverage of the ongoing debate.
Ms Larson said the article did not set out to compare the merits of NCEA and CIE and so the magazine was not required to examine the shortcomings of the alternative system.
As for failing to distinguish between comment and fact, Ms Larson said that where the article included opinion, this was made clear.
She said Dr Poutasi’s complaint was based entirely on the presumption that the magazine’s source lied and the moderator in question told her the truth.

Discussion
The standfirst sets the tone for a hard-hitting article: ‘Scaling, cheating, fudging figures, manipulating marks – and that’s just the administrators. Is NCEA corrupting everyone it touches?’
This is a one-sided critique of NCEA and NZQA. It is unconvincing for the magazine to argue on one hand that there was no requirement for it to seek balancing comment from NZQA and then to argue that if it had, it wouldn’t have been likely to be successful.
There is obvious rancour between the two sides and a 2007 article, also highly critical of NCEA, seems to be last time the magazine attempted to seek NZQA’s views directly. That article was the subject of a complaint to the Press Council by NZQA also over fairness and balance and opinion and fact. That complaint was not upheld.
On that occasion the magazine approached NZQA for its views and included comment from NZQA and others. This time it made no such attempt.
It is not sufficient for the magazine to rely on last year’s annual report and call it NZQA’s balancing view, particularly when accusations of fudging, manipulation and corruption are being made.

Conclusion
Publications are entitled to take a forthright stance and advocate a position on any issue. The Press Council is not in a position to say the article is inaccurate. But this article contained specific and potentially damaging allegations that in fairness, for balance and, not least, for the sake of its readers should have been put to NZQA. The complaint is upheld in terms of Principle 1 concerning fairness and balance.

The Press Council does not see any confusion between fact and opinion. North & South and the writer of this article have previously expressed strong views about the NCEA system. There is no doubt that the article is expressing the opinions of the writer and the others interviewed. The complaint is not upheld on principle 4.

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

Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.