BETH HAMILTON AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2834

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Taste Lack of
Tragedies, Offensive Handling of

Overview


[1] Beth Hamilton has complained about a story published on Stuff on September 16, 2019. It was headlinedDimetrius Pairama murder trial: Accused says she witnessed torture and beating.

[2] The article is one of a series of court reports covering the trial of two people for the murder of 17 year-old Dimetrius Pairama in Mangere last year.

The Complaint

[3] Beth Hamilton complained that Stuff did not display a “warning or censorship” for readers about the explicit details in the story. She says she felt sick reading the article.

[4] Ms Hamilton said in emails to Stuff that she felt the article was written not to inform readers, but to shock and failed to show respect for the victim’s family. “Did Stuff ask her family how they felt about those details being shared to the public?”

[5] She argued the article could have told the story without the “gruesome and disturbing details”. She adds, “I did not expect to read the horrific details based on the title alone, and a warning of explicit content would have prevented my personal upset too”.

The Response

[6] On behalf of Stuff, Chief News Director Natalie Crockett writes that the killing was an extremely violent case and the headline made that “explicitly clear”.

[7] “Anyone who decided to read beyond the headline would be doing so in the knowledge that the story was highly likely to contain content some people might find disturbing,” Ms Crockett writes. She adds that while Stuff sometimes warns readers when stories contain graphic images, it doesn’t put such warnings on written content because headlines and opening paragraphs are considered “fair warning”.

[8] Criminal trials by their nature are bruising and some evidence is disturbing, but that does not stop news organisations covering the trials or, worse, tailoring their coverage to suit a particular mood expressed by the public. Ms Crockett points out that could lead to a journalist being held in contempt of court for seeking to influence the result of a trial.

[9] In this case, Stuff strongly disagrees with any suggestion it should have left out the details of the murder; “such details show the seriousness of the crime and the depravity of the accused’s [sic] actions”.

[10] Open justice is a key to New Zealand’s legal system and courts are generally open to the public. It is the duty of the media to report on such cases in a fair and accurate manner and omitting key details would not be a true reflection of what jury members heard. No suppression orders were made and it is not for media to act as censors.

[11] Responding to Ms Hamilton’s question whether Stuff had asked the family how they felt about the explicit details of the crime being reported, Ms Crockett says the family heard all those details alongside other members of the public, as they attended for the duration of the trial. Stuff has spoken to the family at length before and after the trial, reporters were invited into the victim’s mother’s home and ran a tribute piece on the victim, “something we wouldn’t have been able to do had the family been offended by our coverage”.

The Decision

[12] The complainant doesn’t nominate a principle under which the Council should consider this debate and there is no specific standard covering taste and decency, but the Preamble does allow for complaints to be made on “other ethical grounds” and it is in that light the Council has considered it.

[13] At its heart, this complaint invites Stuff to consider whether headlines are sufficient warning for some readers. Other media took a mix of approaches to stories on the trial; some ran lines at the top of the story warning of graphic content, some did not.

[14] The Council notes that despite Ms Crockett’s contention that Stuff only puts warnings on stories with explicit images, a story by the same reporter on the same trial ten days earlier (September 6) did have the words ‘Graphic Content’ in bold at the start of the text. The images used were not explicit and were in fact the same as used in the story that upset the complainant. The warning clearly related to the words. So it seems there is discretion used by member of Stuff’s digital team to sometimes add a warning.The Council notes it was not used in this case. This inconsistency can leave readers unsure what to expect.

[15] Having said that, the choice whether or not to run warnings is clearly the responsibility of the editor. It is for Stuff’s editors to judge the tastes and sensitivities of the website’s readers, just as it is for the complainant to judge whether she wants to continue getting her news from Stuff.

[16] It is reasonable for Stuff’s editorial staff to conclude that a headline containing the words “murder”, “torture” and “beating” should suggest to readers that the article will contain disturbing details of just such acts. The headline makes it clear it is a report of a witness account and it would be unusual for a story to then not report what the witness claimed to have seen.

[17] Ms Crockett has explained well the principled reasons court reporters relate events most people would find disturbing. Being the public’s eyes and ears in court and providing an accurate summary of what is said in court (even about foul crimes such as this) and explaining why the jury came to the decision it did is their job.

The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.