DEBBIE LISTER AGAINST NEWSHUB

Case Number: 3340

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2022

Decision: Upheld

Publication: Newshub TV3

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Headlines and Captions
Discrimination and Diversity

Ruling Categories:

Overview

  1. On 26 July 2022, Newshub published a story on its website headed SPCA looking into Palmerston North WetPets pet store following raft of allegations from ex-employees. Debbie Lister complained under Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, Principle (7) Discrimination and Diversity and Principle (6) Headlines and Captions. The complaint is upheld under Principle (1) on the grounds that Newshub did not deal fairly with WetPets.

The Article

  1. The story reported that a Palmerston North resident had posted photographs to Facebook from inside Wet Pets pet store and expressed concern about animal welfare. Several ex-employees had come forward with more allegations. 
  2. The allegations from the anonymous store visitor included that cat enclosures reeked of urine, cats were lying on what looked like wet blankets, dogs were kept in small pods and were “barking in despair”. 
  3. Anonymous ex-employees made claims of underfeeding of animals and water bowls being taken away when puppies tipped them over. They said the store lacked a process for dealing with dead animals, like rabbits or guinea pigs, and they were put in the rubbish skip. An ex-employee claimed that cleaning enclosures was rushed and not done properly and the owner would shout at the dogs when they cried.
  4. The SPCA was reported as saying they were concerned by the allegations and were making inquiries. The allegations were put to the pet store owners who were reported as saying they were confident animal welfare was up to standard, and disputed claims that cages were not cleaned properly and dogs’ water bowls were not refilled. 

The Complaint

  1. Debbie Lister, one of the owners of Palmerston North WetPets, complained that the story was based on hearsay from disgruntled employees, and had no factual basis. It had caused financial hardship to the business, and staff had been abused. Stating that the business was under SPCA investigation was not true. The SPCA was required to visit after every complaint made by the public, but they had found no fault with the business, she said. 
  2. Ms Lister said that when she was contacted by the reporter, she was overseas and it was the day of her father’s funeral. She spoke with the reporter for over an hour. There were issues she needed to clarify so she told him her father was being buried that day and asked for further time to respond. Ms Lister said the reporter agreed, but the story was published the next day without further chance to respond.
  3. Ms Lister said several people who claimed on Facebook to be ex-employees had never worked for the business. She said she could give the reporter the contact numbers of other ex-employees to contact but this was not taken up. 
  4. Ms Lister said there were two employees who were likely to be unhappy with the business but this was not included in the story. She claimed the first person quoted in the story who had posted on Facebook was a young person who had done a work trial but stayed for less than half a day.
  5. She also disputed other claims in the story, including saying litter trays were cleaned twice a day, puppies were in small pens while their holding pens were cleaned, barking “in despair” was a dramatic choice of words for the natural barking of puppies, animals were not underfed and were regularly offered water. 
  6. She told the reporter that the SPCA had already been to the business and there were no issues, but the SPCA had not been contacted to get an update, and the story said they were still under investigation.  

The Response

  1. Newshub replied that the reporter had verified that the SPCA was looking into allegations. The fact that those making the accusations were ex-employees was reported, so readers could judge the integrity of those allegations.
  2. The allegations were put to Ms Lister in an interview and while not all her responses were included in the story, “a fair voice of opposition” was presented, and the answers given provided readers with the owner’s perspective. The reporter maintained that it was made clear the story would be run the next day. 

The Discussion

  1. The main thrust of the complaint is captured by Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance. 
  2. The use of anonymous sources, while acceptable in many cases, carries risks and needs to be handled with care. In this case, the Council considers Newshub should have been more cautious about reporting allegations from unnamed ex-employees without more investigation, and it would be good practice to state in the story why they were not prepared to be named. Newshub should have made more strenuous attempts to verify the accusations against the owners, which were serious. In particular, the Council considers that the reporter should have gone back to the SPCA and asked what they had found when they visited. If, as the complainant says, the SPCA found nothing of concern, that should have been reported prominently in the story, or a follow-up story done. 
  3. Newshub did give the owners a chance to respond, and the Council believes that a reasonable amount of the response was reported, although it was right at the bottom of the story. It would have been more balanced if the owners’ denial of the accusations had been given more prominence.
  4. Overall, because of the reliance of the story on allegations from unnamed sources, and the failure of the reporter to investigate further and find out whether the SPCA had detected any failings, the Council finds that Newshub did not deal fairly with Wet Pets. The complaint is upheld under Principle (1).

Council members considering the complaint were Raynor Asher (Chair), Ben France-Hudson, Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, Marie Shroff, Reina Vaai, Alison Thom, Richard Pamatatau, Hank Schouten, Rosemary Barraclough, Scott Inglis, and Jonathan Mackenzie.

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