DR. PETER DAVIS AGAINST THE NZ HERALD

Case Number: 3270

Council Meeting: JUNE 2022

Decision: Not Upheld with Dissent

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions

Ruling Categories: Misleading

Overview

1. The complaint was that the article’s headline and general theme was misleading, and that the statistics relied on were inaccurate or did not support the conclusions reached.  The Media Council has concluded that the article contained no inaccuracies and did not lack fairness or balance.  

2. On 2 May 2022 the New Zealand Herald published an article under the heading: Deeply Troubling: Our Shocking Guns Statistics as Gang Warfare and Firearms Violence Erupt. The first sentence read:

“Nearly one hundred Kiwis have been shot dead in just four years amid an explosion in gang warfare and firearms violence across our communities.”

4. It goes on to refer to figures released to the Herald under the Official Information Act which revealed “the devastating impact of the nation’s worsening firearms crisis”.  The article quotes the Police Association President who says that people are dying because of the risk of firearms crime in New Zealand, and newly released police data showing that 92 people have died in “firearms-related homicide offences” since January 2018 with others left fighting for their lives.  It states:

“More than half of the fatalities were victims of the 2019 Christchurch Mosque attacks which claimed the lives of 51 Muslim worshippers”.

5. The article refers to the fact that of the remaining 41 fatalities, 17 were from the Auckland region including 10 from Counties Manukau.  The number of Auckland offenders prosecuted by police for murder and other serious crimes involving a firearm almost doubled in 2021 to 120.  Three hundred and sixty-six such crimes were prosecuted across the city in the last four years. 

6. It compares these to the figures between 2008 and 2017 where there were 69 murders involving a firearm and only 13 in Auckland.  The President of the Police Association is again quoted saying that “the shocking statistics underlined the damage being wrought on communities by gun violence linked to simmering gang tensions and turf wars over the illicit drug trade”.  He refers to the nervousness of frontline police officers and steps taken to protect them.  He refers to houses being sprayed with bullets and persons being hurt in gang shootings in Wellington. 

7. It was stated that an investigation showed that police are encountering about 10 guns every day nationwide, and that the three Auckland District Health Boards had dealt with more than 350 gunshot injury patients in the last six years.  It referred again later in the article to the mosque attacks “motivated by white supremacist beliefs”, and that experts blamed the rise in gun violence elsewhere on organised crime violent drug syndicates, plus the influx of Australian deportees. 

8. A statement by the Auckland Mayor is also referred to indicating alarm at the number of firearms and the propensity for gangs to use them including those persons deported from Australia.  He stated that while not all of the firearm crimes were associated with gangs and homicides, if allowed to escalate rising violence as a result of organised crime was a major risk.  Other leading public figures are quoted along the same lines.  Reference is also made to positive efforts to try and control guns in the community.


The Complaint

9. Professor Peter Davis complains that the article shows what is a marked deterioration in the accuracy and integrity of media coverage on a number of public policy questions, of which gangs and guns was just one.  He stated that although he is not a specialist in the area, he has an interest in ensuring that the public is not misled by poor journalistic behaviour and practice. 

10. In relation to the headline he says that the headline grabs the reader’s attention on gun statistics linking them to gang warfare.  He notes that several paragraphs later “the item concedes that over half these fatalities occurred in the Christchurch Mosque shooting” which leaves 41 deaths, or an average of 10 a year for the four years between 2018 – 2022.

11.He says that Google shows that the number of gun homicides has been stable at about 10 a year for some time and that there is nothing surprising that 17 were in Auckland given that about a third of the population is in Auckland.  A third would be 14 deaths.  He also said that there were 366 major crimes of violence and firearms in Auckland over the last four years, about 90 a year on average, so that the 120 last year was not greatly out of line.

12. He states that the headline and theme of the article shows “deliberateness and lack of integrity”.  He also is critical of the fact that no writer’s name is associated with the item and questions whether that is good professional practice.  He also queries whether it is good practice for the OIA information referred to not actually being shared with the reader. 

13. He says that the main claim on fatalities is simply wrong. 

The Response

14. The Herald notes at the outset that the article is related to a long running investigation by the Herald on the gun violence firearm crimes.  It is stated that Operation Tauwhiro where the police are targeting gangs and their use of firearms, has resulted in the seizure of 1,500 firearms in the past year, hundreds of arrests, and the seizure of millions of dollars in assets and cash.  It refers to other efforts the police are making to curb the illegal use of firearms.

15. It is pointed out that senior members of the community and on both sides of the house are concerned about worsening gun violence statistics being recorded across Auckland and other parts of the country, and that they attribute this to a rise in organised crime and gang tensions linked to the illicit drug trade, as well as other causes.

16. It states that “there is no doubt that gang firearm violence is increasing”.  It points to the recent $550 million law and order package aimed at addressing gang violence, gun crime and the accessibility of firearms.  It sees the media’s role as highlighting criminal offending that poses risk to public safety.

17. It states that the headline is correct and denies the allegation that it is misleading.  It was made clear that the Christchurch terrorism attack skewed the number of gun deaths.  It notes that in relation to the breakdown of the 41 deaths that took place excluding the Christchurch Mosque death, 41.4 came from the wider Auckland area, and a quarter of those deaths (10) come from the single police district of Counties Manukau, which does not contain a quarter of New Zealand’s population.  There are concerning trends in South Auckland.  Over the last four years the number of serious crimes involving a firearm have increased from 70 odd to 120.  Barely a day goes by without there being a shooting incident as the Police Association President points out.

18. As to the reporter’s name not being published, the Herald notes that his name was published in the newspaper version, and that reporters decide whether to include their name in the digital version; there is an issue of reporters being threatened and abused if their names are revealed.

19. In relation to publishing raw data, it notes that news stories are not required to include footnotes and citations, and that this was a news article and not an academic paper.  Documents released under the Official Information Act are public documents and anyone can get them.

The Discussion

The Headline

20. The particular focus of the complaint about the headline is that it was misleading, and applies general firearms violence figures, in particular those relating to the Christchurch Mosque attacks, to gang warfare only. 

21. We cannot agree with this interpretation of the headline.  It reads, ‘Deeply Troubling’: Our Shocking Guns Statistics as Gang Warfare and Firearms Violence Erupt’. (emphasis added).   It plainly refers to two factors that make the gun statistics “deeply troubling” and “shocking”, being gang violence and firearms violence.  Firearms violence in contradistinction to gang violence plainly includes the Christchurch Mosque attacks.  The two causes in the headline could have been reversed so that the firearms violence came first and gang warfare came second, but we do not consider the juxtaposition in the context of the headline to be misleading. 

22. The headline on its plain words, does not blame gang warfare only on the shocking statistics, but also blames general gun violence which clearly includes the Christchurch Mosque attack.  This is reflected in the contents of the article as a whole, as we set out in the next section.

23. There is a wider question as to whether the gun statistics can be fairly stated to be shocking or deeply troubling, which we address in the course of this analysis.

Inaccuracy / lack of balance – the article as a whole not taking into account the Christchurch Mosque attacks

24. The fatalities in the 2019 Christchurch Mosque attacks are referred to in the article, and concern about the Mosque attacks is part of the theme of the article.  Six paragraphs down, it is stated that more than half of the gun fatalities were victims of the mosque attacks, and later in the article it is stated that while the Mosque attacks were the work of a lone terrorist motivated by white supremacist beliefs, “experts blame the rise in gun violence elsewhere on organised crime and violent drug syndicates plus … deportees”.

25. We do not consider the article to be unfair or unbalanced by including the fatalities arising from the Christchurch Mosque attacks in the discussion.  They are part of the concerning statistics, and that is unambiguously acknowledged. We note that on an overview the article is balanced and fair on the issue of gun violence.  It does highlight gang warfare but it also highlights firearms violence generally.  There is sufficient emphasis on the Christchurch Mosque attacks to make the reliance on the overall gun homicide figures not misleading.  The fact that the Christchurch Mosque attacks occurred is supportive of the theme of the article, which is that firearms related homicide offences are on the increase.

The emphasis on gun violence in the Counties Manukau district

26. Professor Davis is critical of the reference to there being 41 gun related fatalities excluding the Christchurch Mosque shooting, as if this is a factor of significance.  He observes that 41 deaths mean an average of 10 a year for the four years from 2018 – 2022, and that the number of gun homicides has actually been at about that rate for quite some time. 

27. However, as the New Zealand Herald points out, it is undoubtedly the case that 10 of those gun fatalities were from Counties Manukau.  In other words, approximately a quarter of New Zealand gun fatalities were from the Counties Manukau region, whereas the actual population of Counties Manukau is estimated by the Counties Manukau DHB at 578,650 people in its 2020/21 projection approximately one-tenth of New Zealand’s population.  In other words, a level of gun violence in Counties Manukau is undoubtedly remarkable and worthy of commentary.  We also note that the Police statistics show an increase in gun homicide in 2018 – 2022 from previous years.

28. Moreover, Professor Davis does not challenge the statement that follows in the article that the number of Auckland offenders prosecuted for murder, attempted murder, aggravated robbery or assault in crimes involving a firearm almost doubled in 2021 to 120.  In criticising the article he says that given a 90 a year average in the last four years, 120 in 2021 is “not greatly out of line”.  Given that it is an increase of over a third, we do not agree. 

29. The general theme of the article that the statistics indicating increasing gun violence is a theme also of other publications.  In an article on 30 January 2022 TV One reported that police data revealed that while the number of firearms offences had risen and fallen over the past 15 years, 2021 was the worst over that period with 1,308 firearms offences recorded, surpassing 2019 where there were 1,142 incidents including the Mosque terror attacks (which counted for two).  We note that in an article published on 18 May 2020 Radio New Zealand had observed that the data broken down by region showed that Counties Manukau had the deadliest year for gun violence in the nation.  It also noted on the basis of figures obtained from the police under the Official Information Act that in the last two years the rate of deadly incidents involving a firearm was the highest it had been since 2009, and that the number of guns seized by the police was also on the rise, up almost 50% on five years earlier, at 1,263 last year. 

30. While we do not rely on any of these statistics as conclusive, they tend to support a conclusion that there is a significant increase in gun violence.  We also note that in an article of 13 June 2022 Newshub reported a 49% increase in injuries recorded as a result of firearms crime in Auckland, and that nationally violent firearms-related incidents have been increasing in recent years from 901 in 2018 to 1,142 in 2019, 1,143 in 2020 and 1,324 in 2021.This shows a rise in gun crime which considerably exceeds the increase in the population.

31. It is reasonable for reporters to rely on statistics, despite the fact that they can give a misleading  impression if not used carefully.  On our overview the use of these statistics by the New Zealand Herald in this article was fair and legitimate.  There does appear to be an outburst of gun violence in the Counties Manukau district.

32. The statistics do not relate particularly to gangs, but the headline and article do not claim that they do.  Understandably there do not appear to be gun violence statistics that relate specifically to gangs.  But there is plenty of evidence that there is a lot of gang warfare taking place.  The number of drive by shootings that are plainly not domestic, would appear to support the thesis that gang warfare is producing gun violence, and this appears to be the conclusion of experts in the Police force. It is significant that the Mayor of Auckland, the Police Minister, and the Opposition National Police Spokesperson, all target gangs in talking about the rising gun violence.

33. On an overview, we do not think it misleading to label the statistics on gang warfare and gun violence as “deeply troubling”.  Recent events, including increasing drive-by shootings and reports of what appears to be a “gang truce” provide further evidence.

Naming the reporter

34. Should reporters be named?  On this issue there is anecdotal evidence of threats to reporters engaged in reporting these types of matters concerning violence.  There is no industry norm on this issue, and we note that some reputable publishers such as the Economist never state reporters’ names.

35. It is ultimately a matter of editorial policy as to whether to state a reporter’s name.  Nothing in the principles sets out any requirement in this regard, and we think the matter is best left to editorial discretion.  We are not prepared to uphold the complaint on this ground. 

The failure to include the raw data

36. Professor Davis states that information obtained under the Official Information Act should be shared with the reader who has no way of checking on the claims.  We agree with the response of the New Zealand Herald that news stories should not be expected to include footnotes and citations, stating specifically the sources of information.  It is desirable that the general source is identified, and indeed this is what the article does; identify the source as figures obtained by the Herald under the Official Information Act.  We see no need for a news article to go further, subject to the need for accuracy in reporting the information.

37. In the experience of the Council, it is not usual to provide checkable data references for readers to go to.  The use of statistics must of course be carried out with integrity, and the figures must be accurate, and for the reasons given we find no failure in this area. 

Decision: The complaint is not upheld on a majority of 9:1 . Dissent from Council member, Marie Shroff

Council members considering the complaint were the Hon Raynor Asher (Chair) Judi Jones, Rosemary Barraclough, Hank Schouten, Alison Thom, Jonathan Mackenzie, Marie Shroff, Richard Pamatatau, Ben France-Hudson, Tim Watkin.

Council member Craig Cooper declared a conflict of interest and did not participant in the discussion of the complaint.

Dissent from Marie Shroff:

A central issue of this complaint is that the headline and lead sentence together convey a misleading impression of the number and cause of fatal shootings in New Zealand in recent years.

The headline read: Deeply Troubling: Our Shocking Guns Statistics as Gang Warfare and Firearms Violence Erupt.

The first sentence read ‘ Nearly one hundred Kiwis have been shot dead in just four years amid an explosion in gang warfare and firearms violence across our communities’.

I dissent from the majority opinion and would uphold on the grounds that together the headline and lead sentence are misleading and unnecessarily alarming. The header taken as a whole conflates a major, extraordinary event, the Christchurch Mosque attacks, which involved 51 deaths by guns, i.e. more than half of the “nearly one hundred kiwis shot dead in just four years”; and links it to recent general gun violence, disorder and gang activities. It explains that 51 of the deaths were from the Christchurch event only when the reader has progressed to paragraph 6 of the story.  However, the rest of the story usefully covered recent history and background to firearms crime in New Zealand.

 

Complaints

Lodge a new Complaint.

MAKE A COMPLAINT MAKE A COMPLAINT

Rulings

Search for previous Rulings.

SEARCH FOR RULINGS SEARCH FOR RULINGS
New Zealand Media Council

© 2022 New Zealand Media Council.
Website development by Fueldesign.

Reach Us

NZ Media Council
79 boulcott street
Wellington, 6011
New Zealand

PO Box 10 879,
Wellington, 6143