COMPLAINT AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2929

Council Meeting: JULY 2020

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Confidentiality
Discrimination
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Headlines and Captions
Privacy
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. Complaint about the reporting of a street row during which racist abuse was hurled at a family who were concerned at the threat posed by an uncontrolled dog.

Background

2. The New Zealand Herald published a story on May 18, 2020 under the headlineCovid19 coronavirus: Filipino family chased by dog and then taunted by its owner to ‘go back to China’.

3. The story was about a fracas triggered when a Filipino family walking around their West Auckland neighbourhood were frightened by an uncontrolled dog. The father took his child out of his pram so he could use the pram to fend off the dog if required. Angry words were exchanged with the dog’s owner and others who also came out onto the street. A member of the Filipino family filmed part of the fracas on her cell phone and a brief segment was subsequently run by theHerald to support the claim that they had been told to go back to China and “take your Covid-19 with you.”

The Complaint

4. This complaint was laid by the dog’s owner, whose name has been withheld by the Media Council.He said the story, as first published, was one sided and only reported the comments of the Filipino family. The reporter assigned to this story was based in the Waikato and had not made the effort to do some investigation and give the other side an opportunity to be listened to before publication.

5. It was wrongly reported that the complainant had racially taunted the Filipino family. The comments, which he strongly disagreed with, were spoken by a friend.

6. He asked whether the reporter had made an effort to know the whole story before it was published.

7. The dog’s owner said that when he approached the Filipino family he was genuinely apologising about his dog’s escape but “the only thing the husband was wanting to do is either killing my dog or hitting me with the pram.”

8. He told the reporter he did not let the dog run free and that it had got out by accident but this had not been reported.

9. He had subsequently been fined $200 by Animal Control, although the fine was later waived on appeal. He had also been criticised on Facebook as being a terrible dog owner and that this had caused him to be worried about his own safety and the safety of his dog and property. He could no longer leave the dog in his backyard when he went to work but had to send him to dog day care and he no longer dared take him for a walk.

10. Since the story was published he and his friend had “become a piece of rubbish in our neighbours’ eyes” His friend was sleepless and wanting to lock himself in his room. The story had been published in Australia and theDaily Mail in the UK and there were thousands of comments on social media criticising him “just because you did not give your readers the full story in the beginning.”

11. He asked the Herald to take the story down and apologise.

The Response


12. New Zealand Herald news director Lane Nichols said they had been unable to contact the dog’s owner before the story was published as they did not have his contact details. The story also did not identify him and faces were blurred from the video. However, the words “go back to China” were clearly made.

13. The story was updated with the dog owner’s version of events added for balance as soon as the reporter spoke to him.

14. Mr Nichols said the story was accurate in terms of who made the “go back to China” comment but the headline was misleading. He had amended that and republished the story.

15. New Zealand Herald deputy head of news Alanah Eriksen said they were contacted on Sunday, May 17 by a member of the Filipino family, identified as “Rob”, claiming he had been targeted with a racial slur in which he was told to go back to China and to “take your coronavirus with you”. Rob had video evidence confirming the comments had been made.

16. The story was assigned to a reporter who interviewed Rob. Police and Auckland Council Animal Control were contacted to confirm Rob’s claims that this incident had been reported, but as they were unable to respond on the Sunday, the story was held over.

17. The following day, after they confirmed the incident had been reported, a story was prepared. It was based on the reporter’s interview with Rob, responses from Police and Animal Control and the contents of the video. The video was blurred to prevent identification. The street was not named and nor did it report the names of the dog’s owner or his friend as they did not know them.

18. The story was published on the Monday evening. After the dog’s owner and the friend, who made the racist comment, contacted theHerald the same reporter immediately got in touch with them, interviewed them, and updated the story with a thorough account of their recollection of the incident. Neither of the men was identified in the story.

19. On May 20 the dog’s owner complained the story wrongly identified him as the person who made the racial slur. Although the report was accurate the headline was misleading and it was corrected immediately.

20. Ms Eriksen said this was a valid story about a matter of public interest given growing reports about heightened racial sentiment towards Asian people amid the Covid19 pandemic.

21. Neither of the men was identified and their faces were blurred in the video. As soon as they made contact they were interviewed and the story was updated prominently with their version of events. There was no dispute that the racist comments were made.

22. The Herald did not rush into the story and waited for confirmation that the alleged incident had occurred and reported to authorities before publishing.

23. Though the complainant said his dog did not rush at the family, it was noted that the council had issued him with a $200 fine after investigating the incident.

The Decision

24. The dog’s owner complained that the Herald breached Principle 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance), 2 (privacy), 4 (comment and fact), 6 (headlines and captions), 8 (confidentiality) and 12 (corrections).

25. Dealing first with the issue of accuracy, fairness and balance, the Media Council notes that theHerald held the story for a day to at least confirm a complaint had been laid before it went on-line. However, it made no effort to locate and interview the complainant or other witnesses to give their account of this incident. The excuse that theHerald did not have the complainant’s contact details is unconvincing. The reporter on this story would have collected sufficient information to pinpoint the locality, if not the exact address. From there the dog’s owner could have been tracked using directories that can identify householders in a street and, more simply, a reporter could have been sent out door knocking to locate the dog’s owner and give him the chance to give his side of the story.

26. The complainant said it made no sense for the Herald to assign this story to a Waikato reporter when this incident took place in West Auckland. The Media Council notes it is not uncommon for reporters to be assigned to covering stories in other towns. Reporters who live or work more closely are not always readily available and besides a lot of reporting is done over the phone or internet, so covering a story in another location is common practice. But in stories of wide public interest, as this one was, extra on-the-ground reporting is often needed.

27. It may have taken more time to contact the dog’s owner but timing of the publication was not critical and was entirely at theHerald’s discretion – the story had already been held for more than a day to confirm complaints had been made to Police and Animal Control and they had also sought comment from the Race Relations Commissioner.

28. As it was, the Herald ran an incomplete story in which a key party had not been approached for his version of events. This left theHerald dependent on the complainant making contact before a more balanced story could be published.

29. The Herald did have video footage to confirm a key element of the story – that somebody had yelled “go back to China”. But it was so brief and indistinct that it was hard to know who said it to whom or take anything more from it without detailed explanation. This made it all the more important for the Herald to try and find the other party involved in the fracas or other witnesses.

30. The original one-sided story was published at 5.10pm and it was 9.17pm before the on-line version of the story was amended to include comment from the dog’s owner.

31. The Media Council finds the Herald’s handling of this story was unfair and upholds the complaint on Principle 1.

32. The Council also upholds the complaint on Principle 6 (headlines and captions). The headline incorrectly stated the Filipino family were taunted by the dog’s owner to ‘go back to China.’It was not the owner who made the taunt. It was his friend who said this as was accurately reported in the story as amended on May 18. Yet the headline was not fixed and remained uncorrected until the dog’s owner made a further complaint two days later.

33. As for Principle 12 (corrections) the Media Council acknowledges the story was amended after it was contacted by the complainant. But it was careless in not correcting the headline at the same time. Headlines have a big impact on how stories are perceived by readers and it was two days before it was changed and only then after the complainant contacted them again. The Herald acknowledges that by this stage the story was well removed from the homepage so the public would only see the headl