AMANDA EASTERBROOK AGAINST THE SPINOFF

Case Number: 3271

Council Meeting: JUNE 2022

Decision: Upheld with Dissent

Publication: The Spinoff

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Corrections

Ruling Categories: Apology and Correction Sought

Overview


[1] A March 28, 2022 a story headlined  It’s the wild west: Has the dog walking industry become corrupted by cowboys?  was published online by the Spinoff.

[2] The story  was one of several  published by the Spinoff during Pet Week in March.

[3] It was presented online with a blurb that said ‘All week we are examining and celebrating our relationship with animals in Aotearoa.’’

[4] The story outlined the rise in popularity of businesses and services catering for dog owners, with a focus on dog walking, as well as day care and grooming services.

[5] It also highlights the rise of ‘cowboys’ in the industry, which is not regulated or licenced.

The Complaint

[6] Amanda Easterbrook complains that the story is defamatory, inaccurate, unbalanced and unfair.

[7] She says the story breaches Media Council Principle 1 – Accuracy, fairness and balance and Principle 12 – Corrections.

[8] Ms Easterbrook provides a tailored dog walking service under the name of ‘Sticks and Bones’.

[9] She says her business is mentioned in the story, and is represented as a ‘cowboy’ operator.

[10] The article refers to my business, Sticks & Bones Limited as a new market entrant and by implication as follows:

[11]  “Canines are big business. Day cares, grooming services and dog-walking businesses are everywhere. Barkley Manor, a Grey Lynn one-stop-shop for dog owners, has its own TV show. “You can barely visit a park without seeing another walker new to the market. With their branded utes and a snazzy logos, they’re easy to spot.
       Those businesses love a good pun. Wags to Whiskers, Sticks & Bones and Pooped! are some of the many services available in Auckland.

[12] Ms Easterbrook says Sticks and Bones is an established business, which has been operating for six years, providing tailored dog walking services.

[13] She says the article “as it pertains to Sticks & Bones is accordingly inaccurate, unbalanced and unfair’’.

[14] Ms Easterbrook’s complaint also outlines April 1 and 8 requests to the Spinoff, for removal of Sticks & Bones’ name from the story, and for compensation for defamation.

[15] She says the Spinoff denied the substance of her complaint and declined to remove or correct the reference to Sticks & Bones.

The Response

[16] The Spinoff editor Madeleine Chapman responded, outlining publisher Duncan Greive’s immediate reply to Ms Easterbrook’s complaint.

[17] Mr Greive had replied that ‘’your business is mentioned just once, in a paragraph which sets up the nature of the industry as a whole – it is separated very clearly from the new entrants and their practices, and in no way implies anything other than that your business has a cheerful name related to the industry in which it operates – which I assume you don't dispute.

[18] “ This single reference is in a group of three businesses, and the reference is entirely and explicitly about the businesses being united in having punsome names.

[19] “There is a clear distinction between the industry as a whole, and the unnamed newer operators which are operating with differing standards.”

[20] Ms Chapman said Ms Easterbrook’s business was included in the story in a list of punny names separate from the very deliberately unnamed “cowboy” operators that are referred to later in the article.

[21] “The article does not suggest that a punny name is a negative trait – in fact, the main interviewee operates a well-regarded business with a punny name (Follow the Leda).

[22] “The Spinoff maintains that readers will be able to discern between a paragraph painting a picture of the industry as a whole, and the anonymous but specific observations of dog walkers today.”

[23] Ms Chapman said that after “considerable communications and for the avoidance of doubt, I have added a clarification to the article to specify that Sticks & Bones has been operating for six years.

[24] “The article now reads Those businesses love a good pun. Wags to Whiskers, Sticks & Bones (which has been operating for six years) and Pooped! are some of the many services available in Auckland.

[25] “I have also included a note at the bottom of the article which reads: This article was updated on June 7, 2022 to specify that Stick & Bones has been operating for six years, and is therefore not an operator considered by some to be a "cowboy" newcomer.

[26] Ms Chapman says ‘’I trust that this will resolve the issue’’.

The Discussion

Discussion

[27] Ms Easterbrook’s complaint can be distilled down to:

  • a) does the story imply her business is new to the market, and
    b)  if so, does the story imply Ms Easterbrook  runs a ‘cowboy’ operation.


[28] Regarding point a) The Media Council’s view is that these two paragraphs in the orginal story clearly imply Sticks & Bones is new to the industry.

[29] “You can barely visit a park without seeing another walker new to the market. With their branded utes and a snazzy logos, they’re easy to spot. Those businesses love a good pun. Wags to Whiskers, Sticks & Bones and Pooped! are some of the many services available in Auckland”.

[30 The reference to “those businesses” clearly refers to the preceding reference to those businesses new to the market.

[31] Regarding point b) Ms Easterbrook’s concern also comes from the context that arises from this paragraph.

[32] “With that boom, some are worried cowboys are looking to get in, set up and make a quick buck”.

[33] Read together, as they appeared in the original story, do these paragraphs imply Sticks & Bones is a new to the market ‘cowboy’?

[34] “You can barely visit a park without seeing another walker new to the market. With their branded utes and a snazzy logos, they’re easy to spot. Those businesses love a good pun. Wags to Whiskers, Sticks & Bones and Pooped! are some of the many services available in Auckland. With that boom, some are worried cowboys are looking to get in, set up and make a quick buck”.

[35] The Media Council’s view is that the reference is generic enough; that an ordinary person will not interpret this as a factual statement that Wags to Whiskers, Sticks & Bones  and Pooped!  are all ‘cowboys’.


[36] Ms Easterbrook alleges Principle 1 – Accuracy, fairness and balance and Principle 12 – Corrections have been breached.

[37] Principle 12 states: A publication’s willingness to correct errors enhances its credibility and, often, defuses complaint. Significant errors should be promptly corrected with fair prominence. In some circumstances it will be appropriate to offer an apology and a right of reply to an affected person or persons.

[38] On June 7, after complaints and threats of defamation from Ms Easterbrook, the Spinoff corrected the story to read:
Those businesses love a good pun. Wags to Whiskers, Sticks & Bones (which has been operating for six years) and Pooped! are some of the many services available in Auckland.

[39] The Spinoff also added this footnote to the story:

This article was updated on June 7, 2022 to specify that Stick & Bones has been operating for six years and is therefore not an operator considered by some to be a "cowboy" newcomer.

[40] In past complaints, the council has previously regarded correcting or notating stories as mitigation, and in some cases, sufficient mitigation to not warrant an uphold.

[41] In this case, the complainant advised the Spinoff of an error - that Sticks and Bones was not a newcomer to the industry -  that the Spinoff initially strongly declined to correct.

[42] Whilst this error was eventually corrected, the council’s view is that the Spinoff took too long – two months - to do so.

Decision: The complaint is upheld on a majority of 9:2  with dissent from Tim Watkin and Hank Schouten.

Council members considering the complaint were the Hon Raynor Asher (Chair) Judi Jones, Rosemary Barraclough, Hank Schouten, Alison Thom, Jonathan Mackenzie, Marie Shroff, Richard Pamatatau, Ben France-Hudson, Tim Watkin and Craig Cooper.

Dissent Statement from Tim Watkin and Hank Schouten:

Looking at the full paragraph in question, it can be read two ways. Yes, it can be read that Sticks & Bones is “new to the market”. It can also read that “they’re” one of the “day cares, grooming services and dog-walking businesses” that are “big business”, alongside the new market entries and even one company with its own TV show. Sloppy sentence structure is not worthy of an uphold. What’s more, the Council's decision that the story does not imply all companies new to the market are cowboys means the only error is relatively minor. That Sticks & Bones has been in business six years rather than being “new” does not impugn or defame it. While a correction made a month after a complaint is raised is woeful, that correction was more a gesture of good faith than an essential edit.  Therefore, we dissent from the view that this complaint should be upheld.

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