A GIRL CALLED HOPE AGAINST SUNDAY STAR-TIMES

Case Number: 2970

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld with Dissent

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Discrimination
Headlines and Captions
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. This is a complaint that an article published in the Sunday Star-Times and on the Stuff website was inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced. It is also alleged to have breached Media Council Principles relating to headlines, and discrimination and diversity.

2. The complaint is not upheld by a majority 10:1.

Background

3. On October 4, 2020, the Sunday Star-Times published a cover story about the organisation A Girl Called Hope (AGCH). A revised version was published on the Stuff website on the same day, accompanied by two videos.

4. The headline in the Sunday Star-Times was ‘A tragedy waiting to happen’. The sub-heading mentioned exorcisms, being brainwashed and sessions to ‘pray the gay away’.

5. The headline on the Stuff article was “‘Saving souls, not lives’: Teen patients say they were traumatised at faith-based mental health clinic”. A caption under one of the accompanying videos mentions a patient being told their soul was tied to their abuser.

6. The story is centred on the accounts of two women who sought help from A Girl Called Hope; Gabrielle Cole in 2012 and 2013, and Kiera Lusby in 2015.

7. The women make serious allegations against the organisation, including being brainwashed, witnessing exorcisms, being told to pray to remove gay spirits, and taking part in sessions to break the soul ties with their sexual abusers. Some of the claims are corroborated by other unnamed former residents who attended the programme between 2012 and 2019. Concerns from former staff are also referenced, although they too remain anonymous.

8. All of the allegations are denied by AGCH centre manager Makerita Siaosi. She describes the actions as unethical practice and says AGCH uses evidence-based practice.

9. There are also comments from former residents and staff who speak positively of the programme. The only one named is Megan Budgen who says AGCH saved her life.

10. Reference is made in the article to AGCH’s links to the international evangelical movement Mercy Ministries, and to the New Zealand based Life Church.

11. The two videos included on the Stuff article focus on the accounts of Miss Cole and Miss Lusby, with the two women describing what they allege happened to them. The videos don’t introduce any new information from what’s included in the text of the article. Miss Cole’s video includes a response to her allegations from Ms Siaosi. Miss Lusby’s video doesn’t.

The Complaint

12. AGCH’s Executive Director Kerry Petrie complained on behalf of the organisation under Media Council Principles 1, 6 and 7 – Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; Headlines and Captions; and Discrimination and Diversity.

13. On the issue of fairness and balance, Ms Petrie says the articles and videos are heavily slanted to the negative accounts of Miss Lusby and Miss Cole and misrepresent AGCH. She points to how the two women’s views comprise the majority of the story, with only a few sentences from other former residents who had positive experiences. Ms Petrie says she offered the journalist the names of three former residents who were happy to share their positive experiences, but he never rang them. She questions the journalist’s intention in his approach to the story.

14. Ms Petrie questions both the intention and reliability of Miss Cole and Miss Lusby. She notes neither of the young women had lodged a complaint directly with AGCH or the Health and Disability Commission when interviewed. She goes on to suggest the two women may be attention-seeking, saying she understands the journalist was alerted to the story through a TikTok video. Ms Petrie says it is not uncommon for mental health issues to be broadcast on social media for attention-seeking purposes and the journalist should have checked the women’s reliability with AGCH before publishing.

15. Ms Petrie says one of the young women was on three weeks leave from work for mental and physical health issues at the time she was interviewed. She says this is in direct conflict with media guidelines from the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand – to publish a story based on interviews taken from an unwell person is not ethical and can trigger readers and the interviewee.

16. On the issue of accuracy, Ms Petrie points to several errors in the reporting. She says it is inaccurate to call AGCH a ‘wraparound’ service, to call them a mental health ‘facility’, to refer to residents as ‘patients’, to use the term ‘treat’ in relation to the service they provide, and to say they have strong connections to Mercy Ministries. Ms Petrie says Miss Lusby spent just over eight months at the centre, not almost a year. She says it is not true to say they cut residents off from the outside world, and says the programme started in 2007, not 2008. Ms Petrie points out that the hyperlink where this date is given in the Stuff article links to a completely unrelated Sydney Post article which she says is misleading.

17. In regards to headlines, Ms Petrie says the Sunday Star-Times headline ‘A tragedy waiting to happen’ is misleading and sensationalist. She says it’s detached from the whole thrust of the story and it’s never explained what the ‘tragedy’ is. She says AGCH was given no chance to respond to the accusation or verify the past employment of the source.

18. Ms Petrie says the page 2 headline “Teen patient told her soul ‘tied’ to abuser” is also very misleading. She says they categorically denied this claim.

19. Ms Petrie says the sub-heading on the print article mentioning exorcisms and ‘pray the gay away’ – and the headline on the Stuff article “Saving souls not lives” – are extreme allegations they confirmed are not part of AGCH’s practice. She says the claim of residents being brainwashed is also not true.

20. Ms Petrie says the misrepresentative headlines, prominently displayed, promote a one-sided and extreme religious set-up to readers which is not a fair voice for her organisation. She says they’re careless, untrue, lack evidence and are significantly damaging to the organisation’s reputation.

21. On the issue of discrimination and diversity, Ms Petrie says the reporting places gratuitous emphasis on extreme religious practices which are not part of their programme.

22. Ms Petrie says one of their biggest concerns is the distress being caused to past, present and future residents by the false claims and damaging misrepresentations. She says they have been contacted by more than ten past residents upset by the coverage.

The Response

23. Editor Tracy Watkins responded to the complaint on behalf of the Sunday Star-Times and Stuff.

24. On the issue of fairness and balance, Ms Watkins says the journalist interviewed multiple residents and staff members for both comment and corroboration, not just Miss Cole and Miss Lusby. She says it is true he did not contact the three women put forward by Miss Petrie to hear their positive accounts, but he did include other positive experiences, including Ms Budgen’s. She says the journalist has also been careful to balance criticism with an alternative view point throughout the article. In terms of criticism of the programme, that is almost immediately countered with a response from AGCH.

25. On the issue of Miss Cole and Miss Lusby’s credibility due to their mental health history, Ms Watkins strongly disagrees with Ms Petrie’s view. She says the journalist did lengthy interviews with both young women and formed a strong view of their credibility. She says he also corroborated their stories with other former residents and staff. Ms Watkins says after publication, the journalist was contacted by six other young women who had similar experiences in Christian-based programmes – five of which had attended AGCH. She says one of the complainants has also now made an official complaint to the Health and Disability Commission.

26. Ms Watkins also challenges the idea that it was exploitive to interview these women because of their mental health history. She says mental illness does not rob a person of their right to partake in society, and being heard is particularly important when people feel they have been exploited or mistreated. She argues it is the media’s role to shine a light on such cases. In saying that, Ms Watkins says the journalist was mindful of the importance of pastoral care and stayed in touch with Miss Cole and Miss Lusby after publication. She says Miss Lusby also sought advice from her GP before going public and had support around her when the story was published.

27. On the issue of accuracy, Ms Watkins says the allegations of soul ties, exorcism and other practices were at the core of Miss Cole and Miss Lusby’s accounts and were corroborated with other sources. She argues this isn’t an issue of inaccuracy, but one of AGCH rejecting the truthfulness of the claims. Ms Watkins says the allegations were put to AGCH and their denials were prominently reported, including in the video.

28. Ms Watkins says the headlines were drawn directly from the story and quotes from a former staff member, Miss Cole and Miss Lusby.

29. In email correspondence, Ms Watkins offered to use ‘young women’ or ‘former residents’ in place of ‘patients’ in any future articles. She also offered to correct the programme’s start date from 2008 to 2007, and the amount of time Miss Lusby spent at the programme from ‘nearly a year’ to eight months.

30. Ms Watkins does not specifically comment on the complaint in relation to Principle 7, Discrimination and Diversity.

The Decision

31. The articles and videos at the centre of this complaint are about the experiences of Gabrielle Cole and Keira Lusby during their time at A Girl Called Hope. While it's clear the story is to be part of a wider series investigating AGCH, this particular story is not an in-depth look at how the programme runs or what's on offer to residents. It is an examination of two young women’s experiences seeking help for their mental health at AGCH. For this reason, it makes sense that their accounts comprise the majority of the story and are the focus of the accompanying videos, photos and headlines.

32. Both the online and print article contain balance high up in the piece. In the second paragraph on both, there is a line making it clear AGCH disputes the claims. “The centre’s management say the allegations being made against them are hard to believe and that their first priority is to care for those in need”.

33. Both articles are well-balanced and provide accounts from those who support the programme and those concerned by its practices. Whenever a serious allegation is made, AGCH is quoted denying such claims.

34. The videos are designed to be accompaniments to the online article, not stand-alone stories. They are there to enhance the coverage by giving Miss Cole and Miss Lusby a chance to share their stories in their own voice, not to be viewed out of context. Miss Cole’s video is positioned first on the website as it includes balancing comments from AGCH, while Miss Lusby’s does not.

35. It is not the Media Council’s role to determine an interviewee’s intention in sharing their story. However, Council notes Ms Watkins’ assertion that both women were interviewed at length to certify their credibility. It also notes the claim that other women came forward on the back of publication with similar allegations. As to the women using social media to share their experiences, this is a common tool used by people to share their thoughts and opinions. It does not necessarily speak to attention-seeking behaviour.

36. Ms Petrie points out the fact neither Miss Cole or Miss Lusby had filed official complaints with AGCH or the Health and Disability Commission at the time of being interviewed. Council members felt it was acceptable for the women to not have taken their complaints directly to AGCH. And while the Health and Disability Commission is a more formal avenue available to them, their decision to speak to the media instead does not discount their claims.

37. Ms Petrie questions the journalist’s approach to the story in light of his decision not to interview the three contacts she provided him. It is an individual journalist’s decision who they interview for a story, and not the Media Council’s place to dictate on that front. In this case it is clear the journalist felt he had enough positive accounts to provide balance without needing to speak to those recommended to him.

38. On the issue of whether it was ethical to interview the two women given their mental health history, Ms Petrie says it was not, while Ms Watkins passionately disagrees. Ms Petrie says the journalist breached media guidelines set out by the Mental Health Foundation in conducting the interviews, especially as one of the women was off work for physical and mental health reasons at the time. Ms Watkins says the journalist was mindful of this and stayed in touch with both Miss Cole and Miss Lusby after publication. Miss Lusby also spoke with her doctor for advice. Ms Watkins says it is the media’s role to expose these stories and just because somebody has mental illness it shouldn’t deprive them of a voice. Ms Petrie agrees with that sentiment, but says the proper channel for that voice is through AGCH or the Health and Disability Commission.

39. Ms Petrie outlines a litany of claimed inaccuracies in the articles, including wrong terminology for the service AGCH runs. A number of these terms - patient, facility, treat, wraparound – do not materially change the thrust of the story. And there is no evidence of them being used to mislead or misinform readers. However, Council accepts they are important in defining different services within the health industry. The issue is how the average reader would interpret them. The Collins dictionary describes a patient as 'a person who is receiving medical treatment from a doctor or hospital', while the Miriam-Webster dictionary describes it as 'an individual awaiting or under medical care and treatment'. Eating disorders are medical conditions so it is fair to refer to residents receiving care for that as patients, without implying doctors in a hospital setting. It is noted Ms Watkins has offered to either correct, or not use such terms in future reporting. To date, no changes have been made.

40. A search of the charities register shows A Girl Called Hope used to be named Mercy Ministries Incorporated from 2008 to 2011, so it is fair to say the two have strong links.

41. In terms of the start date, AGCH's website makes it clear the first intake of women was in 2007. The property was purchased the year before in 2006, and the organisation itself was founded in 2004. It is unclear where the journalist got 2008 from as the year the centre started operating. In email correspondence Ms Watkins says they will correct this, but it has not been corrected online. While this date does appear to be wrong, it is a relatively minor detail in relation to the rest of the article, and in no way misleads or misinforms the reader in regards to the purpose of AGCH and the programme it runs. The hyperlink where the date is given in the online article links to a Sydney Post article about the former chief executive of Mercy Ministries and his involvement with a multi-million dollar lawsuit against coffee giant Gloria Jeans. While tenuous, this does relate to the wider investigation into Mercy Ministries and the way those involved in the organisation conduct themselves.

42. When it comes to how long Miss Lusby spent at AGCH, 'just over eight months' and 'almost a year' are somewhat open to interpretation, especially as Christmas was included. Without knowing the exact timeframe, it is hard to determine which is more accurate.

43. In regards to claims of cutting residents off from the outside world, it is made clear in the article that AGCH disputes this. Ms Siaosi is quoted as saying they regularly help residents communicate with police, social services, and family.

44. As for headlines, while Ms Petrie claims they’re misleading and sensationalist, they all are clearly linked to quotes contained within the articles. They accurately convey the thrust of what’s to follow and are clearly attributed.

45. Principle 7, Discrimination and Diversity, states gratuitous emphasis should not be placed on certain subjects, including religion, in reporting. Ms Petrie says allegations of extreme religious practices have been dialled up for effect despite their rejection of such claims. But the religious practices mentioned in these articles and videos are important details, central to the accounts of Miss Cole and Miss Lusby. They are reported in their own words.

46. On a final note, Council members commended the journalist for the efforts he took to make sure the two women were okay before and after publication. This case is a good example of the pastoral care media companies should provide when dealing with vulnerable people.

Decision

47. The complaint is not upheld by a majority of Council members 10:1

Dissent

Pravina Singh dissented from this decision and would have upheld on unfairness and lack of balance in the article and on the headline (Principles 1 and 6).

The article was about an alternative residential treatment programme that was neither medical nor commonly known or understood. The programme itself is not under wider long running public scrutiny, discussion or debate and should have been explained in more depth.

The article was unfair to the organisation as readers were left speculating about the content of its programme. It was insufficient tokenism, at best, to say in the article that the organisation denied the allegations without more explanation. It was not a medical facility; it was therefore inappropriate and inaccurate to use terms such as patient, facility, wrap-around service etc as the common understanding of these terms involves certain medical standards, which are inapplicable in this context. This was misleading and reinforced by vague assertions about untrained staff and the headline of a tragedy waiting to happen

The link of the organisation to its previous name on the Charities Register to Mercy Ministries Incorporated did not necessarily mean the two organisations had strong links. There is no evidence that they are strongly linked other than by their origin. This and factual errors, albeit minor if taken on their own, suggested a lack of care to observe fairness and balance

The headline also failed to fairly convey the substance covered in the article.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Liz Brown (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Marie Shroff, Pravina Singh, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

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