ANNE THOMPSON AGAINST SELWYN TIMES
Case Number: 2251
Council Meeting: MAY 2012
Verdict: Not Upheld
Publication: Selwyn Times
Balance, Lack Of
Behaviour of Journalists
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
The Press Council has not upheld a complaint against the Selwyn Times concerning a story on a leading llama breeder, Anne Thompson.
On January 31, 2012 Selwyn Times published a story on Mrs Thompson, a llama enthusiast who had emigrated from Britain and set up a farm initially in Yaldhurst, before moving to a bigger farm in Weedons. The story was part of the newspaper's "5 minutes with" series, and featured chatty comment with the subject about her passion for llamas, how the animals behave, development of her farm as a business and tourist attraction, and the impact of the Christchurch earthquakes on her business.
Mrs Thompson was approached for an interview by the newspaper, which had already featured a story on a neighbour. The reporter who arranged the interview had to cancel, and was replaced by another reporter who visited Mrs Thompson. The visit took about an hour, and involved a farm inspection. The reporter did not take any notes. Mrs Thompson assumed the interview was being recorded, but later found it was not. She gave the reporter written biographical details, following advice from her neighbour who had already featured.
About 10 days later the reporter called and said the story would be published, but that her computer had crashed and the story had not been saved. She asked if Mrs Thompson would agree to some of the biography material being published. Mrs Thompson agreed, but was puzzled by this as the reporter had not made any notes when they met. The story which appeared was a "rehash" of the biography with some "strange comments" attributed to her. There was also a typographical mistake in the published story ("sextremely"). The reporter had also led her to believe she would see a copy of the story before it appeared. She did not get that opportunity.
She considered the story had plagiarised her biography, used words that she would not have used, and had ended on a negative – rather than positive – note.
The newspaper had also missed out on an opportunity to capitalise on the fact that a previous Selwyn Times story helped her successfully re-home a herd of neglected llamas. She had told the reporter how extremely grateful she was to the Selwyn Times – but that was not in the biographical details and did not appear in the newspaper.
She considered the story was not an honest report of the interview she gave.
The Newspaper's Response
Editor Barry Clarke said the story was written by a competent university student who was filling in for another reporter. On February 3 Mrs Thompson called him about the story, complaining about its tone, the amount of space allocated to it, the wording on the front page pointer box, the story's use of the word "sextremely" and that the reporter had broken her word by not letting Mrs Thompson vet the story before publication.
He apologised for the typographical mistake and asked her to email her concerns plus any specific inaccuracies. When he got her email no specific mistakes were pointed out, other than the word "sextremely".
He spoke to the reporter, who said she had not taken notes and that the farm tour had taken longer than she expected. Mrs Thompson might have assumed a feature article would result.
Mrs Thompson had given the reporter her biographical details. The reporter later had a computer problem, and asked Mrs Thompson if she could use those details in the story. She agreed. The editor did not accept that they were "plagiarised".
Reporters were not allowed to let interviews subjects "vet" a report before it was published. Mrs Thompson had not supplied proof that this promise was made. Concerning the disputed words attributed to Mrs Thompson, Mr Clarke said the reporter was sure she used the words, but did not have notes.
He had offered Mrs Thompson the chance to spell out any specific inaccuracies, so he could consider acting on or correcting them. He would happily correct any factual inaccuracies.
Press Council Decision
The newspaper sent an inexperienced reporter to meet Mrs Thompson. The reporter should have taken notes during the tour/interview. Without them, it is difficult to know if the words complained of were in fact uttered. The typographical mistake has been acknowledged by the newspaper, which has also offered to correct any specific inaccuracies but says it has not been given any, apart from the offending word.
Mrs Thompson supplied the biographical details on which the reporter relied for her story; therefore the claim of plagiarism does not stack up. Also, most newspapers do not allow interview subjects to "vet" their stories, although reporters are encouraged to check anything they are uncertain about.
The newspaper also missed a golden opportunity to capitalise on its previous story, with Mrs Thompson telling its reporter she was extremely grateful for its help in re-homing llamas.
Mrs Thompson is passionate about her llamas, and sensitive about how she was portrayed. However, the resultant story was deliberately "chatty" in style and not negative in tone, despite her assertion. The newspaper also has the freedom to report a story as it sees it, provided it is accurate. On balance, despite faults on the newspaper's side, the complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.