PETER DENNIS AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2659

Council Meeting: MAY 2018

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. Peter Dennis complains about a Stuff article of March 16, 2018 entitled “Military-style automatics among hundreds entering criminal hands each year”. Following complaints received by Stuff an amended version was published on March 29.

The Complaint

2. Mr Dennis thinks the headline inaccurately and unfairly suggests hundreds of military-style semi-automatic firearms are stolen each year, whereas only six were stolen in one year.

3. Mr Dennis also complains about breaches of accuracy, fairness and balance in the text of the article, specifically:

a. The term military-style semi-automatic (MSSA) is used inaccurately in relation to the Aramoana massacre, as the term was not created until after that event.

b. The statement that 549 firearms were stolen from licensed owners should have been balanced by mentioning that Police recovered many of those.

c. The failure to mention by way of balance that the 549 stolen guns make up 0.004% of firearms legally held.

d. The inclusion of a statement that the Police Association (PA) President Chris Cahill has called for a system which licenses the owner not the firearm, because this is a regulatory approach now regarded by Police as unsatisfactory.

e. The inclusion of the results of a 2017 PA survey which found 1 in 8 PA members reported being threatened with a firearm more than once in the previous year. This conflicts with Police figures showing arrests for incidents where officers were presented with a firearm were less than 20.

The Response

4. The Chief News Director (the Director), Eric Janssen, says Stuff received several complaints about the article directly. They thoroughly reviewed the article, including talking to those involved, which took a little time. As a result they made a number of amendments, and added footnotes to address “perceived bias”, publishing a new version on 29 March. The amended story was briefly put up on the landing page of Stuff, to give it some prominence. Some of the other complainants to Stuff appreciated the amendments made. Only Mr Dennis’ complaint was taken through to the Press Council.

5. The Director’s response to the Council covers more issues than those raised in Mr Dennis’ complaint; it seems the other complainants who dealt directly with Stuff, sparked some of the changes made on 29 March. The whole response from Mr Janssen gives context relevant to the Council’s consideration of the complaint and has been taken into account.

6. The Director rejects the general charge that Stuff has an anti-gun agenda and acknowledges, “the vast majority of gun owners in New Zealand are vetted, licenced and law-abiding citizens”. He notes the article “was not perfect, but we took all reasonable steps and care to address these issues when they were flagged up to us.” He also explains “There are many articles which we tweak as more information and voices come to hand – all with a view to improving and rounding the article (which is distinctly different from correcting them)”.

7. The Director rejects the claim the headline is inaccurate. “Among” means “includes” and six semi-automatics were in fact among the hundreds stolen. The headline was amended to read “semi-automatic” instead of “automatic”, in the interests of complete accuracy. He contends that semi-automatics (as well as automatics) pose a bigger threat in the wrong hands than single shot firearms, and that the word “semi” was dropped for reasons of brevity.

8. On accuracy, fairness and balance the Director says:

- The term MSSA was coined after the Aramoana massacre, but it is a legitimate description of a weapon used at Aramoana.

- An inaccurate photo caption saying Aramoana killer David Gray used more than one MSSA was corrected. The term “Aramoana massacre style semi-automatic firearms” which led off the article was an “emotive” term in the context. It was removed and replaced by “semi-automatic firearms”.

- The claim that the article lacks balance because it does not mention arms recovered by the Police is rejected. The article was about firearms stolen in the past year.

- The claim that the article should have covered the fact stolen firearms make up a very small percentage of legal weapons is rejected. The theft of 549 firearms in one year is a newsworthy concern for law-abiding people.

- The inclusion of PA President Chris Cahill’s views on the controversial subject of gun control is justified, and balancing opposing views were also reported.

- The apparent conflict between the PA member survey figures of 1 in 8 police threatened with firearms, and 19 arrests made on firearms threats to officers in the same period according to official Police sources, is explainable as an “apples and oranges” situation ie different things are being measured and reported on.

The issue is also dealt with by added footnotes.

The Decision

9. Information technology now provides a fluid context for reporting on and amplifying news. Stories are quickly got out to readers and amended or expanded as they develop, and more voices are heard. Editors must constantly balance the advantages of speed in publishing a story against the risk of getting it wrong. In this case speed of publication may have come ahead of care with presentation, which led to the many amendments subsequently made to the story.

10. In his complaint to the Council, Mr Dennis raises a number of specific points. Stuff has acknowledged that he and others had reasonable criticisms of the article, which were responded to by a number of changes. The overall emotive impact of the piece in its original form has been toned down by these changes.

11. However, the article in its original form did contain balancing material. The headline clearly says, “includes”, and the article reports in the first few paragraphs that the number of semi-automatics stolen was six. The term MSSA is now in common usage, describing a type of weapon which predated the term. It does not mislead the reader to use the term MSSA retrospectively in this case. The absence of a mention of stolen arms recovered by Police, and of the percentage of firearms legally held versus those stolen, are balancing, debating points, which the complainant would have wished to include. They are not critical to an article about arms stolen in a particular year. The inclusion of Chris Cahill’s views about the need for better arms control was balanced by comments from a firearm safety specialist saying that for now firearms rules were “fit for purpose”, and from the Council of Licensed Firearms Owners vice-chair saying gun ownership laws were generally adequate.

12. The disputed figures about numbers of Police being threatened with firearms are not essential to an understanding of the stolen arms story. However, we note Stuff has chosen to make changes and add footnotes, which round out and balance this portion of the article, so readers are better able to make up their own minds about the different figures.

13. Stuff has also made changes to remove a factual error (by changing a caption to make it clear that David Gray had only one semi-automatic); and substituting the phrase “semi-automatic firearms” for the more emotive “Aramoana massacre style semi-automatic firearms”.

14. The Director has acknowledged the article was not perfect in its original form. He acted to investigate the substance of complaints made to Stuff and amended and added to the story to round out and balance the piece.The Director attributes the 12 days that elapsed between the first and second publication of the story to the complexity of the complaint.It is a measure of the Director’s dissatisfaction with the original story that, in a letter to the complainant, he says he has now directed that all stories about gun control should be referred to him before they are published.

15. The Council encourages editors to investigate complaints, amend them quickly and give equal prominence to an amended story. The Council will take these factors into account in considering complaints.

16. The original story as a whole was amended following various complaints, to provide more balance and information. The number of changes made show the original was less than satisfactory; and the time taken to publish the amended article was longer than desirable. However, in the Council’s view, Mr Dennis’ specific points do not constitute a breach of the Principles in relation to the headline or the text of the article.


17. On balance we consider the complaint does not justify upholding, but note that the Director himself considered the article to be “not perfect”.

18. The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Chris Darlow, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay, Tim Watkin, Tracy Watkins

Hank Schouten stood down to maintain a public member majority.