AWATAPU COLLEGE AGAINST MANAWATU STANDARD

Case Number: 1025

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2005

Verdict: Upheld in Part

Publication: Manawatu Evening Standard

Ruling Categories: Bias
Accuracy

Awatapu College complained about a story published in the Manawatu Standard on March 15, 2005, and headed Text threats to kill and rape sparked feud.

The complaint is partly upheld.

The article concerned acrimony between some pupils of Palmerston North Boys’ High and Awatapu College, fights between students from both schools and the expulsion or suspension of students. These particular facts in this serious situation appear to be undisputed by either side. However the sequence of various events and reports bear on the complaint, and need to be outlined.

The newspaper reported that text threats sparked a fight between students on March 1. It quoted a Boys’ High incident report which said a text message contained threats. The story said four Boys’ High students were expelled and an Awatapu College student suspended and five others stood down.

The story then quoted the father of one of the expelled Boys’ High students in indirect speech saying that text-messaging had been going on since at least November. The man was also quoted saying that his son had gone to Awatapu with a friend “after seeing the text” which had death threats against someone’s family.

The newspaper quoted from a report by Boys’ High rector Tim O’Connor saying “it began in November” and that he [Mr O’Connor] had asked the police to follow up the threatening texts his students had received. Mr O’Connor was also approached by the newspaper directly and commented that Boys' High had acted appropriately. He was unable to comment further because the matter was confidential.

The story then quoted the Boys’ High incident report by senior master Peter Truter which was described as “the boys’ version of events”. It referred to text messages, contents of the texts, that a planned fight on February 23 was averted by the presence of teachers and the police, that other threats were made, that the fight on March 1 was arranged by text, and that another planned fight on March 4 was prevented by the prior disciplinary action by the schools and a significant police presence.

The newspaper quoted the Awatapu College principal Mrs Tina Sims. It reported her rebuttal of the Truter report claim that one Awatapu student had a hammer, saying that police had found no sign of one. The newspaper again reported Mrs Sims saying an Awatapu boy had denied to the police, and to the school, sending a threatening message. She was reported saying there were different versions of how the [March 1] incident started but none of them could be confirmed because the text messages had been deleted.

Finally, the newspaper reported the Awatapu College board of trustees chairman Tony Coffin saying one boy came before the board disciplinary committee but “he [Mr Coffin] wouldn’t say whether he was reinstated or expelled.” The newspaper said it understood that the five other Awatapu College boys who were stood down were back at school.

In its formal complaint to the editor, the Awatapu College Board of Trustees requested a front-page retraction for a story it said was based on unsubstantiated claims without evidence, and allegations rather than facts. The story was also biased and sensationalised. Two particular complaints were that text messaging was not continuous, as implied – there was a gap between the first message in November and the next in February – and that Mr Coffin was misreported. He did not say “wouldn’t” confirm a student has been reinstated, but “couldn’t” because of confidentiality.

The editor responded that while the word “allegation” was not used in the story, there were three sources. The exact wording of the text messages was not known because they were deleted, but that was not proof the messages did not exist. The action of the schools was evidence they accepted the claims made. The editor disputed the claims of bias and sensationalism (“if by sensationalised you mean this story was given front-page coverage, I agree”). The quote about continuous texting had been from the father.

Because the student suspended was not named, the editor said the issue of confidentiality did not arise and “Mr Coffin’s claim that he ‘couldn’t’ comment, in effect meant that he would not comment.” The editor offered a front-page story expressing the Awatapu board’s concern while warning of the publicity that would result.

The complaint to the Press Council expanded the points, saying the headline and report of threatening text messages “does not attempt to make it clear that such a threat is alleged to have been made, nor does it allow for the possibility other factors may have led to the fight.” The complaint reinforced the concern about the “continuous text messages” account and the misreporting of Mr Coffin.

The Awatapu College principal and deputy chairperson of the Awatapu College Board of Trustees said the editor’s view of why the schools acted was “speculative at best as the editor does not know the information placed before the board members or the reasons for the decision of those board members…” They said the disciplinary reaction was invoked in relation to the fight on March 1 rather than text messaging which may have preceded that conduct.

The complainants cited the Press Council principle about care and consideration in reporting on and about young people, and said their complaint was “made in good faith in light of our concern about the good name of our school and the impact of the reporting on our students.”

The editor’s response to the Press Council was that there was enough evidence from the three sources quoted to make the headline and introductory paragraph a fair summary of what the story contained. The paper had also acknowledged that the offending text message in question had been deleted, quoting Mrs Sims, but believed there was enough evidence to support the fact text messages were sent.

“Abuse of text phones and using them to pre-arrange fights between groups from two Palmerston North schools are serious issues that should be covered by Palmerston North’s daily newspaper.”

It’s understandable that a school will want to protect its good name and its students, but it seems that the report of the grave incidents between two schools was fairly and fully covered by the Manawatu Standard. The paper seems to have offered both sides a chance to have their say about a fairly traumatic set of events in the city and may have been limited in its inquiries by some of the confidentiality restrictions within the schools.

The detail of the surrounding events or messages seems to pale significantly when set beside the resulting aggression. Nowhere did the newspaper suggest that text messages were the cause for any of the disciplinary action which ensued. It would be naive to believe that text messages were not exchanged between students regularly, even if one deleted message could not be found.

It is not disputed that a fight did take place, and the newspaper reported on this and the text messaging which seemed to be relevant to the whole incident in that context. The Palmerston North Boys High incident report was the source of the content of the text message. However this was not clearly apparent from the headline or the opening paragraph. In the Press Council’s view there should have been an attribution in the headline to the report, and also in the first paragraph, either by the use of quotation marks or by a reference. This omission, however, is not sufficient to warrant an uphold on this point.

The editor in citing evidence to the Press Council said the newspaper had run a story on texting and text bullying in April, interviewing school principals, because this issue among students was a valid subject that should not be ignored.

The one area where the paper fell down was in reporting that Mr Coffin “wouldn’t” comment on the status of a student, rather than couldn’t. The editor said that was minor semantics, and that Mr Coffin’s claim that he “couldn’t” comment “in effect meant that he would not comment.” But there is quite a serious distinction, and the implied criticism which has resulted in the story is clearly unjustified in this case.

Someone who “will not” do something is showing a will to obstruct, while someone who “can not” do something may be willing, but not able to for many reasons. It is unethical of the newspaper to exchange one description for another, when the simple addition of the words “because of confidentiality” would have explained the situation clearly. This part of the complaint is upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Puata, Lynn Scott, Alan Samson, Murray Williams, Denis McLean, Clive Lind, Terry Snow and John Gardner.