MOUNTAIN SCENE AGAINST THE SOUTHLAND TIMES

Case Number: 977

Council Meeting: MAY 2004

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Southland Times

Ruling Categories: Plagiarism
Accuracy

This complaint has been made by Mountain Scene, a community newspaper published in Queenstown each week, against the Invercargill-based daily newspaper, The Southland Times.

On 30 October 2003 Mountain Scene on its front page published a story of great interest to the Queenstown community, and because the subject was the airport at Queenstown, also of considerable regional interest. The banner headline was “AIRPORT SET FOR TAKE OFF” and below that in a subheading “Exclusive
by Philip Chandler.” Mr Chandler is the editor of the newspaper.

The essence of the exclusive centred on the fast growth of airport business. It was authoritative in that the principal source of the information was an interview with the Queenstown Airport Corporation (QAC) chairman Mr John Davies. The main point of the article was that the Queenstown Airport is due for “a major rejig” to accommodate the ability of the airport to provide adequate services in the near future in the light of the present and reasonable forecasts of growth. To illustrate the urgency the chairman was quoted as saying the first stage is likely to be a 50% enlargement for the ’05 ski season at a cost of $3m to $4m. An important quote from Mr Davies was that the aiport’s gone from “a famine to a feast very rapidly.” The terminal that was opened in 2001 at a cost of $6 million was meant to service the airport for 10 years but it’s already suffering increased congestion and will now probably double in size over the next 10 years. The article was fully researched and considerable background material was supplied in support of the central point of growth. Altogether an excellent good- news story for Queenstown and the region.

Five days later on 4 November 2003 The Southland Times published an article under the headline “Frankton terminal faces $4m expansion” by- lined to a Queenstown-based journalist employed by The Southland Times. The piece opened with “QUEENSTOWN – The Queenstown Airport Corporation plans to spend between $3 million and $4 million expanding its airport terminal building in time for the 2005 ski season chairman John Davies said yesterday.” As will become clear there was no interview with Mr Davies on the 3 November on the subject of the airport.

The article using the authority of the claimed interview with Mr Davies then went on to mention many salient features about the development that indisputably came from the article of 30 October published in Mountain Scene. Although not a matter complained of, it is notable that several of the quotes were altered in the Southland Times story. Some statements from the original story were incorrectly attributed to Mr Davies. Haste or carelessness is no doubt the reason for one statement of Mr Davies about the scale of expansion (“It’s gone from a famine to a feast”) appearing twice in The Southland Times story changed to “It’s gone from a feast to a famine.”

Other persons not mentioned in the Mountain Scene article were named by The Southland Times as interviewees, but there was no escaping that Mr Davies was said to be the source of the main points, or that most of the important facts had appeared first in Mountain Scene. There was no attribution that salient material for the Times story had originated from Mountain Scene.

The complaint by Mountain Scene against The Southland Times is basically that the Times behaved unethically in its use and presentation of the Mountain Scene story.

Applying the concept of plagiarism to the media world is not a simple task. News is clearly in a different category from literary, artistic or musical works. The Press Council acknowledges the accepted practice within the media world, news is news wherever it comes from, and is able to be used freely. Everything turns on the scale and detailed wording of the suspect material.

If the story had been correctly attributed to Mountain Scene there would have been no basis for the complaint. The media today regularly pulls together a vast number of sources – wire services, syndicated articles from overseas newspapers, magazines to which clipping rights are owned, rival newspapers and the electronic media, as well as staff reporters – for a single story.

Nevertheless, it is accepted newspaper practice that when using direct quotes taken from another source, rather than obtaining them directly from the person quoted, a publication must attribute those quotes. This is partly for the protection of the newspaper, which often has no way of knowing whether the quotes are accurate (though that was not the case in this instance because Mr Davies apparently told the Times reporter that the Mountain Scene article was “word perfect”). But it is also because readers are entitled to know the source of the material they read. That can be achieved by specifically stating “Mr Davies was reported as telling Mountain Scene”, by giving the source a credit in the byline, such as “by staff reporter and Reuters”, or by giving a credit at the end, such as “additional material from NZPA.” The Southland Times article did not do any of those things and so its readers would have been under the false impression that the material was directly collected by the paper’s own staff.

This impression could only have been reinforced by the claim that the Times had interviewed the chairman of the QAC on 3 November 2003. No interview on the subject of redevelopment of the Queenstown Airport had taken place.

The complainant supplied a letter from the chairman denying that he had been interviewed by the Times. The editor of the Times in response to the complaint insists that the journalist had spoken to Mr Davies that day but he had refused to be drawn on the airport issue and simply stated what was in the Mountain Scene article was “word perfect”. These facts may ameliorate the gravity of the failure but do not excuse it as the readers would have gathered from the Times article that a separate interview with Mr Davies on the subject had taken place.

On the general issue of non-attribution by the Times the editor said it was a grey area at least and he denied breaching any industry practice.

To sum up, the use of the Mountain Scene story by The Southland Times breached acceptable standards of journalism.

The complaint is upheld.