ACC AGAINST THE WESTPORT NEWS
Case Number: 3391
Council Meeting: February 2023
Publication: Westport News
Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
- In December 2022, the Westport News published four articles about woman who was hit by a car in a Westport carpark. ACC complains the articles breach Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance. The complaint is upheld.
- The first article on December 8th Woman faces ninth surgery outlined the details of the accident, the injuries sustained by the victim (Chelsea Ferguson), some background details about Ms Ferguson including that, while she is a Kiwi, she now lived in Australia and was in Westport for a family holiday.
- The article ended with Ms Ferguson expressing her frustration at a lack of support from ACC and included text lifted from a Radio New Zealand article where an ACC spokesperson responded saying that support is assessed on a case-by-case basis and once people left New Zealand they would be assessed for lump sum compensation and may be entitled to some ongoing personal care. Following an email from ACC stating that their statement had been inaccurately paraphrased, RNZ immediately corrected its article, however, the Westport News had already lifted the incorrect text.
- On December 9th, the Westport News published the article ACC Clarifies stating that the ACC spokesperson referred to in the article the day before clarifies that once a person left New Zealand they would remain eligible to be assessed for lump sum compensation when they returned home.
- On December 22nd, the Westport News published the article Chelsea out of hospital for Christmas talking about her release from hospital and the length of recuperation needed. The article included a quote from Ms Ferguson’s cousin saying ‘Chelsea has made a plan to continue to stay in New Zealand for the next six months while she continues to make her leg stronger than ever. Chelsea would love to go home to Australia but sadly this is just not affordable with losing help from ACC for medical if she does.’
- On December 23rd, the Westport News published the article ACC refutes claim where it refutes the claim that Ms Ferguson won’t receive ACC if she goes back to Australia. The ACC spokesperson refers readers to the quote in the article of 9th December where ACC stated that an overseas visitor on leaving NZ would remain eligible to be assessed for lump sum compensation and might also be entitled to some ongoing personal care when they left.
- Under Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, ACC complains that the first article paraphrased ACC’s statement as ‘once a person left New Zealand, they would be assessed for lump sum compensation and might also be entitled to some ongoing personal care’. ACC’s original statement said that once a person left New Zealand, they would remain eligible to be assessed for lump sum compensation when they returned home. They argue that this misrepresents ACC policy.
- Further, the ACC complains that publishing the second article as a correction ACC clarifies is incorrect as the ACC was not clarifying its earlier statement, it was pointing out a mistake in the original one.
- ACC further complains about the quote included in the third article ‘Chelsea would love to go home to Australia but sadly this is just not affordable with losing help from ACC for medical if she does’. They argue that they should have had the opportunity to respond, especially because they had provided a statement to the Westport News on December 9 that outlines that Ms Ferguson remains eligible to be assessed for ACC should she leave the country. ACC contacted the Westport News about the source of information about Ms Ferguson losing her ACC payments and whether this had been fact checked. The Westport News responded that the source was a Givealittle page and had not been verified.
- ACC argues that instead of running a correction, the Westport News published the fourth article and so did not take accountability for its errors. ACC further argues that it implies that ACC provided inaccurate information initially that needed correcting, which was not the case.
- The Westport News responds that its first story focused on Ms Ferguson’s accident and recovery and included a response from ACC lifted from a RNZ story. They were unaware that RNZ had paraphrased the ACC statement. When ACC contacted them on December 9th they agreed to clarifying ACC’s position, not publishing a correction.
- They defend the third article by stating that it included a quote and that they accurately reported the comment as posted on a Givealittle page.
- The Westport News report receiving several emails from ACC on December 23rd, including ACC providing text for a correction. They argue that they ran the ACC text in full under the heading ACC refutes claim.
- The Westport News argue that they have been accurate because they reported what Ms Ferguson, her cousin and ACC said. They cannot fact check comments made in interviews. They argue that because Ms Ferguson and her cousin’s comments differ from ACC, that ACC felt they were wrong and unfair to ACC. They argue that the women are entitled to comment on ACC’s position as they understand it.
- The Westport News also argues that balance has been achieved over time as they have published ACC’s responses immediately after receiving them, giving them considerably more space than the brief comment it refuted.
- They state that their stories are not about whether Ms Ferguson would receive support from ACC when she returned home to Australia. They include comments from Ms Ferguson and her cousin about ACC support and ACC’s responses.
- Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance is the centre of this complaint. The Media Council principle asserts that publications should be always bound by accuracy, fairness and balance and should not deliberately mislead and misinform readers by commission or omission.
- ACC has clearly stated that Ms Ferguson is eligible to be assessed for ACC support – both lump sum and potentially other support services if she returns to Australia. This is their policy. It is a fact. The Westport News knew this from 9 December onwards. It even published it on 9 December.
- That it then chose to include a quote in an article on 22nd December from Ms Ferguson’s cousin that stated otherwise with no comment or statement from ACC or indeed from them based on their knowledge of ACC policy, is likely to mislead readers about ACC policy and potentially ACC as an organisation, especially given the serious injuries sustained and the emotive nature of this story. The Westport News state that they have the right to share the opinion of people. The Media Council is clear that material facts on which opinion is based must be accurate. This was not the case in this quote.
- Principle (1) allows for an exception in long-running issues where every side of an issue or argument cannot be reasonably repeated, or balance can be achieved over several stories. In this case, three articles cannot be considered a long-running story, especially as one was refuting the previous and the last article included a quote, that while the quote was reported accurately, contained inaccuracies.
- The media has a powerful role to hold public agencies to account and share the experiences of people of those agencies. It, however, also has the responsibility to do so accurately. The New Zealand public should expect to receive accurate information about their entitlement to public services. In this case, the Westport News by omitting to provide factual information to correct an inaccurate quote, has breached Media Council Principle (1). The Media Council upholds the complaint the Westport News article Chelsea out of hospital for Christmas.
- Further, Principle (12) Corrections states that a publication’s willingness to correct errors enhances its credibility and often defuses complaint. The Media Council notes that RNZ, the source of the initial contested phrase, immediately corrected its copy. The Westport News chose not to. Instead it published two articles that ‘clarify’ and ‘refute’ their original text. Should the Westport News have simply published a correction, it is likely there would have been no complaint.
Decision: The complaint is upheld on Principle (1).
Council members considering the complaint were the Hon. Raynor Asher (chair); Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Alison Thom, Marie Shroff, Judi Jones, Jonathan Mackenzie, Tim Watkin, Hank van Schouten, Rosemary Barraclough and Scott Inglis.