The New Zealand Press Council has upheld a complaint from the Bay of Plenty District Health Board over a feature story which appeared on the front page of the Weekend Edition of the Bay of Plenty Times on August 25, 2007.

The Article
The story focused on the death of an elderly patient who had initially been admitted to Tauranga Hospital to be treated for a broken arm. He died in the hospital four weeks later from organ failure due to septicaemia.

The first headline in red stated “Bay Man’s Death Sparks Health Fears” followed by a triple-decker headline in bold type across almost all of the top half of the front page – “He went to hospital with a broken arm. A month later William was dead”.

The introduction stated, “A man admitted to Tauranga Hospital earlier this year with a broken arm, died there after contracting a mysterious infection.”
The caption to the accompanying photo read: “AVOIDABLE DEATH: The wife and daughter-in-law of a 70-year-old who died in Tauranga Hospital have spoken out about staff numbers.”

The report was largely dependent on the opinion of the man’s wife and daughter-in-law who were critical of his care and suspected that the infection that led to septicaemia had been contracted in hospital. They praised the staff but considered that low staffing levels had contributed to his death.

The article closed with comments from the DHB’s Communications Manager rejecting the claims about lack of personnel.

The Complaint
In the DHB’s view, the newspaper’s dramatic coverage of the story was misleading, unbalanced and unfair, especially in the strong insinuation that the hospital was the cause of death. The DHB also suggested that the newspaper was guilty of misrepresentation when asking for comment, as the request did not make the focus of the story apparent, but asked about staffing levels in general.
Finally, the complaint asserted “editorial bias” against the DHB.

The Newspaper’s Response
The editor strongly rebutted the complaint and the criticism. He defended the right of newspapers to cover such issues even when a local institution is shown in a bad light.
More specifically, he stressed the speculation about the cause of death came from the family and was acknowledged as personal opinion in the report. The reporter had been up-front when asking for a response from the DHB. He also took exception to the charge of ongoing bias against the DHB arguing that every story was handled on its own merits.

The Press Council had some misgivings about the way the requests for comment from the DHB were handled. The exchange of e-mails led to confusion. Given such prominent and dramatic treatment being accorded the story, the newspaper should have taken the time to establish a direct contact with the DHB where the concerns raised could have been put in an interview.

Although the newspaper’s e-mails did clearly refer to the particular patient, giving name and date of death and that the patient’s widow “wanted her story told” , the email had the potential to mislead as the specific response requested related to staffing shortages. Having been told, in the same e-mail, there was no complaint against the medical staff the DHB may not have realised there was to be a suggestion that it was responsible for the death. The Council does not, however, find that there was deliberate misrepresentation.

Further, when the second request for a response was received only two days before publication, the DHB might have considered asking for more time to respond, citing a need to investigate and/or contact the family.

Nor is one complaint about one particular story enough to indicate ongoing “editorial bias” against the DHB on the part of the newspaper.
The Press Council does not uphold these aspects of the complaint.

However, the suggestion that the cause of the death lay within the hospital was carried not only by the widow’s suspicions, it was reinforced by the newspaper in the large and emotive headline, and by captions and comments such as “Avoidable Death” and “died after contracting a mysterious infection”.

The Council cannot determine the accuracy of the facts relating to the medical condition and cause of death, but neither can the newspaper. The editor himself said, in responding to the DHB claim that it was not responsible, that only a medical investigation or coronial inquest could make such a determination.

In making this deliberate link between the patient’s death and his care in hospital, there needed to be much more support than was supplied in the article.

The Press Council recognises the traditional right of newspapers to cover such stories in a strong, even dramatic, manner. Nevertheless, in creating this alarming insinuation, the Bay of Plenty Times was unfair to Tauranga Hospital and misleading to its readers.

That complaint is upheld.

Council members considering the complaint were Barry Paterson, Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.


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