COMPLAINT AGAINST MANAWATU STANDARD

Case Number: 2771

Council Meeting: APRIL 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Manawatu Evening Standard

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Confidentiality
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Misleading
Privacy

Overview

1. The complaint concerns a report of February 26, 2019 in the Manawatu Standard headlinedBride bitten during wedding day dog attack.

2. The article reported that during a photo session at home after the wedding, the bride’s dog ran outside, chasing a passing dog, and attacked it. The bride and guests intervened in the dogfight and the passing dog bit the bride and one other person. Animal control was called out, and a Palmerston North city council spokeswoman was reported as saying the dog that was attacked was taken to a vet and the attacking dog was being kept by the council and would stay at the pound while the matter was investigated.

The Complaint

3. The complainant is unhappy with the article on the grounds that the information collected was false and misleading. The complainant says the paper did not investigate properly and failed to check its facts and whether its sources were credible. The family involved were identifiable from the details published, and as a consequence suffered harm including significant anxiety, having to change cell phone numbers and take down social media accounts due to unwanted attention. The complainant regards the story as morally questionable and says the publication of the article was unnecessary.

4. In further correspondence with the Media Council the complainant listed inaccuracies and flaws seen in the article, saying inter alia: the whole incident took place on private property and the bride did not run onto the street; the dog did not escape, rather the passing dog entered the property; the breed of the bride’s dog was wrong ie Staffy cross not pit-bull; the bride’s dog was released home shortly after being picked up and should not have been described as aggressive without further supporting information; only two rather than three people had minor injuries as a result of the incident; and no approach was made by Stuff to the families involved.

5. The complainant has asked for anonymity, and has not accepted the publication’s offer for the article to be republished with inaccuracies corrected, on the grounds that this would draw more attention to the families involved and would be of no benefit to them.

The Response

6. Matthew Dallas, the Manawatu editor of Stuff, responded that the incident came to attention from a tip to a reporter on the Monday after the wedding. The story was corroborated in detail that afternoon by a wedding guest who contacted Stuff with concerns about possible inaccuracy in animal control’s account of the attack. This informant spoke to the paper on condition of anonymity for self and bride, and Stuff agreed. The editor said the article was based on the guest’s account of what happened. Palmerston North City Council, which is responsible for animal control, also confirmed it was called to the dog attack, and that one animal was taken in and another required vet care. As the address from which the dog attacked was not provided to Stuff, the editor says an approach to the family was not considered.

7. The only identifying information published about the family was the street where the attack occurred and the name of the dog, which would be known to family and friends of the bride, but not the general public. No offensive backlash appeared to have been published on Stuff or Facebook.

8. The editor notes that no approach from anyone identifying themselves as the bride, her family or the groom’s family has been made to anyone in the newsroom since the article was published, either to give their account or dispute the article. Stuff had some difficulty responding to the anonymous complaint as the complainant did not initially provide details of alleged inaccuracies in the article. The editor also regrets any distress caused to the family, and has repeatedly said that if inaccuracies are established this could lead to changes or additions to the article online and a correction in print.

9. The editor notes that animal attacks are often reported. He also says, irrespective of points of contention with the complainant on accuracy, that dog attacks and the safety of people and animals are of public interest. The article about the attack was justified in the public interest, and Stuff’s information was that the attack took place on public property.He maintains the article was not handled in an insensitive way, and aimed to preserve anonymity of those involved.

The Decision

10. The complaint focuses on justification for publishing the story at all, inaccuracies in reporting and privacy. Relevant Media Council Principles are: 1. Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; 2. Privacy; and 8. Confidentiality (in this case the reliability of an anonymous source). The Council also considered standards of the reporting process around the article. This was a local, colourful, human-interest story about an incident at a private and special occasion, a wedding. Because the incident was an animal attack, sparking a council animal control callout, it also engaged an issue of public concern and interest.

The Council agrees that the incident was newsworthy and does not uphold the complaint on general justification for publishing.

11. There are conflicting claims about whether the attack took place on a public street or on private property. In the event it seems there were a number of facts contested or possibly wrong in the story. The editor has offered to engage with the complainant to correct these. The complainant feels on the other hand, that rerunning the story would be of no benefit. An impasse has been reached on correction, which the Media Council cannot resolve. We observe that an after the event apology and correction may not always provide a fix for inaccurate reporting, and may in fact lead to further damage to individuals who feel themselves to be disempowered and permanently damaged by a story.

12. With respect to the news gathering process, and accuracy, fairness and balance (Principle 1), it is clear that Stuff had supporting information from animal control officers for the general account of the dog attack given by the anonymous informant who initiated contact. But reporters had not spoken to the bride herself who was the main focus of the article. More effort could have been made perhaps by door knocking in the street to get further witnesses to the incident. However, the main facts of the incident are not disputed i.e. that a dog attack took place, people who intervened were bitten, and that animal control was involved. It seems reasonable for Stuff to rely on a combination of council animal control information, and the account from a seemingly credible eyewitness, who was anxious to balance the information from animal control officers.

The complaint on Principle 1 is not upheld.

14. With respect to privacy (Principle 2), the context was a private family wedding, where the publication of the story had the capacity to spoil the participants’ pleasure in, and memories of, a significant moment in their lives. The issue is whether Stuff could have anticipated the family would become identifiable from the details given in the story eg the wedding setting, the street name and the dog’s name and breed. With the connective power of social media, identity information can quickly proliferate, from people with local knowledge who are able to spot where the incident took place, to more general exposure on social media. This seems to have happened in this case. We observe that an ethical news media will need to take this into account in future, in making choices about what stories and potentially identifying details to publish.

15. On balance the Council agrees with the editor’s view that the family would be unlikely to be identifiable to the wider public from the information in the story.

The complaint on Principle 2 is not upheld.


16. With respect to Principle 8, Confidentiality, the editor says that the confidentiality of the name of anonymous informant was protected. There was good reason for Stuff to believe that the person was a reliable eyewitness, whose account was to a large extent confirmed by information from animal control.

The complaint is not upheld on Principle 8.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Jenny Farrell, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay, Tim Watkin and Tracy Watkins.