Case Number: 908

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2002

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought

The New Zealand Herald publishes a regular supplement for college students who want to see their work in print. A piece written by a Year 10 student at Epsom Girls Grammar and published on September 14 fell is disputed by the Poultry Association of New Zealand.

The piece was headed Putting those Chickens and their Eggs First and was given the weekly Editor’s Choice award by the Herald.

Taken from a classroom exercise in writing rhetoric – a fact that became evident from correspondence that attended the Press Council’s complaint process – the author’s piece canvassed what she saw as the dangers to humans as well as to hens by feeding the latter hormones to hasten their growth.

The article referred to research that the 14-year-old had undertaken to support her arguments, which included references to a chicken raised on modified feed that grew three legs and one wing, birds being force-fed and others raised to have no beaks, feet and feathers. That research, however, was neither cited in the article nor initially offered to the Herald in the article’s support.

Mr Michael Brooks, executive director of the Poultry Industry Association, e-mailed a letter to the editor of the Herald on the same day that the article appeared. In it he said the student’s piece gave no proof of its sources or the truth of statements made.

He said he was astonished that it was published without first being referred to the industry attacked – the poultry industry; that it was in breach of the Herald’s own rules for work appearing in the College Herald; and that it had been endorsed by being given the Editor’s Choice award. Mr Brooks sought an apology.

He wrote separately to the editor a day later, reinforcing his earlier points and elaborating further. He complained about the wording of the Herald’s sub-heading on the student’s article, the caption under the photograph, that the article was not marked “Opinion” and that it left the impression that hormone-fed and genetically modified hens were common in New Zealand when they were not. Mr Brooks also repeated his concern that the newspaper had contravened its own rules, as he understood them to exist, for acceptance of articles for publication from students.

Here, the association’s executive director was referring to inquiries he had made that found that those rules included the provision of the sources for statements made. Mr Brooks said that had been breached on this occasion according to the Herald’s own staff.

Herald deputy editor David Hastings defended to the Press Council the newspaper’s practices and the article. He cited a number of sources that the student had used in compiling her school essay, though conceded that she had fallen victim to an urban myth circulating on the Internet about chickens being force-fed via tubes in the United States.

This had alerted the Herald, Mr Hastings wrote, to the dangers of secondary school writers uncritically gathering material from the World Wide Web. “As a result we intend to run in the next issue of College Herald a warning to budding authors about the perils of accepting at face value what they read on the Internet,” the deputy editor told the Press Council.

Publish the warning the newspaper did.

Mr Brooks was not placated and correspondence continued between him and the Herald about the article, the Herald’s response to it and its accuracy.

The Press Council this week upheld the complaint.

It acknowledged that the newspaper acted swiftly to remind student writers of Manchester Guardian C P Scott’s famous dictum that comment is free, but facts are sacred. Its admonition to junior writers said: Remember to Check your Facts. It went on: Everyone writing for a newspaper, whether it is page one of the New Zealand Herald or a contribution to the College Herald, should follow the dictum by checking the facts.

The Press Council wholeheartedly agrees.

It believes that the admonition to students applied equally to the Herald itself. In the end, the newspaper had failed to apply good journalistic practice to submitted material from a non-staff member.

There was not only a danger in people accepting uncritically information posted on the Internet but also for the Herald in publishing material from school children, the veracity of which had not been checked, the Council found.

It believes that newspapers publishing the work of young writers have an extra obligation to check that their articles disseminated in a medium that editors want readers to trust, is accurate or at least can be verified as coming from a reputable source. While encouraging young writers is a worthy act by newspapers, the Council said, editors must bear in mind the vulnerability to which they expose themselves and their readers if articles of any provenance cannot withstand scrutiny.

The Council also believes that if the Herald sets down rules for the acceptance of student articles it does neither itself nor the student any favours when it fails to observe them.

However the Council appreciated that the 14-year-old schoolgirl was expressing an evidently sincerely held opinion, but it should be based on fact.