ROBERT MILLER AGAINST THE WAIRARAPA MIDWEEK
Case Number: 2435
Council Meeting: MAY 2015
Verdict: Not Upheld
Publication: Wairarapa Midweek
Headlines and Captions
Robert Miller's complaint relates to a front page article headlined "Psycho Killer" that appeared in the weekly community newspaper Wairarapa Midweek on February 17, 2015.
The article, accompanied by a large picture of a caged and apparently angry cat, dealt with the predation of cats on native wildlife and followed a number of letters to the newspaper on the issue.
It included comments from an interview with two men with strong views on the impact of cats on wildlife.
One of the two, Alan Fielding, had helped eradicate cats on Little Barrier Island in the 1970s. Mr Fielding was quoted saying that cats were "psychopathic" because they killed for pleasure.
in his complaint Mr Miller lists breaches of Principle 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance), Principle 5 (headlines and captions) and Principle 6 (discrimination and diversity).
Mr Miller discussed his complaint in person with the newspaper's editor and asked for an apology to be published in the newspaper. The editor did not agree and the complaint to the Press Council went ahead after the editor agreed no written complaint to the newspaper was necessary.
The complaint is not upheld.
Mr Miller argued that the headline was derogatory language that would commonly be understood to refer to humans with serious mental disorders and that the word "psycho" relates to "psychotic".
In his rebuttal of the newspaper's response he elaborated, saying it could refer to either psychotic or psychopathic or both and that derogatory vernacular is imprecise.
He also cited the two Psycho movies saying were about acts of violence by acutely mentally disturbed. He also referred to a murder some days before the article on the Kapiti Coast by someone under treatment for mental health problems, pointing out that was handled responsibly by the Dominion Post.
He argued that the headline complained about could easily be read without connection to the article below. He had seen the folded paper with only the headline visible, so it was not obvious the story was about cats.
He contended the headline "reinforces a 'script' already strong in the popular mind linking unpredictable violence with major mental disorder".
That would tend to increase the sense of alienation felt by people with such serious disorders and deter them from seeking necessary treatment, so the headline was bad for public health aspects of mental health care. Put another way, it would contribute to an adverse social climate, rather than cause individual offence.
In regard to Principle 6, he argued the headline placed gratuitous emphasis on mental disability.
In terms of Principle 1 he argued a possible breach on the grounds of deliberately misleading or misinforming readers.
The newspaper's response was provided by the Wairarapa Times-Age editor Andrew Bonallack supplemented by the views of Wairarapa Midweek Editor Gerald Ford.
They said the article was about cats and it was not reasonable to simply link the headline and article to mental health disorders and that was clearly not the context of the article. The prominent picture of a cat in a trap, barring its teeth, and the sub-heading "Pair seek tighter controls on cats" reinforced that.
The headline was taken from a comment by one of the interviewees, who had helped with a cat eradication programme, who described cats as "psychopathic".
As such the headline was a direct reflection of the article's context and "neatly paraphrases a key quote from a person interviewed".
Mr Bonallack rejected the contention the headline could be read without noticing the article below.
He said the article made no reference to mental health conditions and the suggestion of a harmful insinuation by association was "too big a stretch".
The headline represented the angle of the story and the "anthropomorphism" involved in assigning cats human characteristics was not unreasonable.
He rebutted the complaint on Principle 1 grounds, saying the newspaper accurately recorded the interviewee's description. He suggested if any balance and fairness was to be sought it could come from someone speaking up on behalf of cats.
Gerald Ford said "psycho" was a contraction of "psychopath" not "psychotic" and that was backed up by the quote in the article. Further, "psycho killer" was a cultural bogeyman and did not refer in any general way to humans with serious mental disorders. There was no intention to be derogatory towards people with mental disorders.
Both editors gave assurances there was no connection between the article and the Kapiti murder and Ford, who approved the headline, said he was not aware of the murder.
Discussion and Decision
The Council does not uphold the complaint on Principle 5. The headline accurately and fairly conveys the substance of the article and in context the contraction "psycho" is appropriate. Nor does the headline under Principle 1 mislead or misinform readers, especially given the sub-heading and the prominent picture underscore that it refers to cats.
In relation to Principle 6, the Council reiterates that publications should not gratuitously emphasise the categories including mental health, listed in the principle. In that regard, they should be careful when using "the vernacular" to refer to groups covered by Principle 6. For instance it is widely accepted in the media that the term "schizophrenic" should not be used colloquially and when it does not refer to that particular condition.
The Council accepts that Mr Miller has a genuine concern about the language used in the headline. However, in this case it believes the context, and the clear reference to cat behaviour, means use of the term "psycho" does not breach Principle 6.
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.