VINCENT BURNS AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD (FACEBOOK)

Case Number: 2578

Council Meeting: JUNE 2017

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Discrimination
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Headlines and Captions
Social Media
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. Vincent Burns complained that a post on the New Zealand Herald’s Facebook page on April 26, asking “Could a sex trend called stealthing be considered abusive?” breached Press Council principles 1 (Accuracy, fairness and balance), 6, (Headlines and captions), and 7, (Discrimination and diversity).

Background

2. On April 26, the New Zealand Herald posted a link on its Facebook page to an article entitled “Stealthing is the alarming new sex trend where men remove condoms during sex without consent”. The post asked: “Could a sex trend called stealthing be considered abusive?”

3. The online article covered a study by Alexandra Brodsky, which was published in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, on the practice of stealthing, and the online communities that encourage the behaviour.

4. The article quoted extensively from Brodsky’s study, in which she said, “Non-consensual condom removal during sexual intercourse exposes victims to physical risks of pregnancy and disease and is experienced by many as a grave violation of dignity and autonomy”.

5. The New Zealand Herald article made no comment on either the practice or the study.

6. The author said the victims of the practice were “struggling with forms of mistreatment by sexual partners that weren’t considered part of the recognised repertoire of gender-based violence, but that seemed rooted in the same misogyny and lack of respect”.

7. The New Zealand Herald immediately removed the post from Facebook when it received a complaint about the wording. The post was ‘live’ for about two hours.

The Complaint

8. Mr Burns believed the post suggested ambiguity about the legal status of the practice; a reasonable reader could expect that the article would deal with the ambiguity over the legal definition of consent. The article did not contain such information, but readers would not know that until they had read the entire article.

9. The complainant said the post (which he refers to as a caption) therefore inaccurately reported the content of the study.

10. Mr Burns criticised the Herald for allowing inaccuracies such as this to be published. By failing to exercise its services responsibly, theHerald had “unhelpfully and unnecessarily contributed to the perception of rape culture by publishing misleading information”.

The Response

11.The Herald news editor David Rowe apologised to Mr Burns for offence caused by the Facebook post.

12. He accepted that the post was poorly worded in that it raised a question of whether the practice described in the article was abusive, when on reading the article, it clearly was.

13. He did not believe the post in itself had breached any Press Council principles.

14. He said the Herald’s swift action in taking down the post, removing the article and apologising to the complainant was, in his view, an appropriate response.

15. With regard to Principle 1, Mr Rowe argued that there is no factual inaccuracy in the post as, in his view, the article does contain some elements of debate about how the acts are classed legally. The report states: “Such condom removal, popularly known as ‘stealthing', can be understood to transform consensual sex into non-consensual sex by one of two theories, one of which poses a risk of over-criminalization by demanding complete transparency about reproductive capacity and sexually transmitted infections.”

16. Mr Rowe also refuted the suggestion that the Herald post had unnecessarily contributed to the perpetration of rape culture by publishing misleading information; the post did not describe the sexual acts, but rather directed readers to the article which discussed the issue in a balanced way.

17. He said the Herald had removed the post after it received a complaint because he accepted the post was ‘astray in its emphasis’ and insensitively worded, not because of a breach of Press Council principles.

18. The insensitivity had been explained to the staff member who wrote the post.

19. He said he did not feel a public apology or correction as requested by the complainant was necessary as the post had been removed, and there was no statement of fact to be corrected. It would only serve to resurface the original post.

The Decision

20. The fact that the Facebook post was written as an interrogative sentence forms the basis of this complaint because it was considered by Mr Burns to be inaccurate, ambiguous, and offensive.

21. Given the sensitivity surrounding the general issue of sexual violence, the Press Council has sympathy for the complainant’s view thatNew Zealand Herald should have systems in place to prevent such a post from appearing on Facebook. In the context of the article, it was a clear case of ‘click bait’, which reflects poorly on the professionalism of the New ZealandHerald.

22. The Press Council acknowledges the Herald’s immediate action on receipt of the complaint to remove both the post and the article and to apologise to the complainant.

23. To suggest that the Herald was contributing to the “perpetration of rape culture” by publishing the post is perhaps drawing a long bow, however, and it should be noted that the article in the link was accurately headlined.

24. The purpose of the Facebook post was to promote the article in the same way that newsstand posters were used in the days before the internet and social media, and clearly did not go through the rigorous editorial processes it should have.

25. The Press Council has previously noted (Case No 2492) that the same standards apply to a social media post of this nature as to other published material.

26. The Facebook post in question was unquestionably inappropriate. Had it not been for the quick response in removing the post and apologising, the Council would have upheld the complaint.

27. Principle 12 acknowledges that a publication’s willingness to correct errors enhances its credibility and, often, defuses a complaint. Equally, a correction cannot be considered a guaranteed get-out-of-jail-free card and, in this case, the decision was borderline.

28. The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tuimalu Peter Fa’afiu, Hank Schouten, Mark Stevens and Tim Watkin.

John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.