Case Number: 2783

Council Meeting: JUNE 2019

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Behaviour of Journalists
Headlines and Captions
Taste Lack of
Tragedies, Offensive Handling of
Unfair Coverage


[1] On 12 April 2019 the New Zealand Herald ran an article with a headline “Woman dies after ‘sex game gone wrong’” and a fuller headline accompanying the story page “UK Woman dead after a sex game allegedly goes wrong”. The article details the death of a young British woman (apparently as a result of asphyxiation or suffocation), who died while on holiday in Switzerland with her boyfriend.

The Complaint

[2] Edward Aretino complains that this headline inappropriately changes the headline that accompanied the original version of the article as published in the United Kingdom (which was “British woman found dead in Swiss hotel room as German boyfriend arrested”). In Mr Aretino’s view the headline used by the NZ Herald, and the story generally, give credence and prominence to the defence apparently being run by the alleged assailant, reduce the report of a very serious crime to a piece of ‘oddball’ news and trivialise violence against women.

[3] Mr Aretino considers that Media Council Principles 1 (Accuracy, Fairness and Balance); 6 (Headlines and Captions); and 7 (Discrimination and Diversity) have been breached.

The Response

[4] While the editor is sympathetic to Mr Aretino’s concerns, he does not consider that the headline was inaccurate. He notes that the claim the death was as a result of “sex game gone wrong” is a key element of the story and that this is fairly covered by the headline. He points to the inverted commas in the headline ‘sex game gone wrong’ and the fuller headline as indicating that these were claims, rather than statements of fact.

[5] Moreover, in his view, the story itself presents the statements regarding the sex game as a claim made by the accused and the relevant facts are noted. In relation to the headline itself the editor also notes that the story has been covered extensively in the international media, and that the headlines used have included reference to sex games and that the death may have been accidental. He concludes by noting that, in his view, the article does not place gratuitous emphasis on gender.

The Discussion

[6] NZ Media Council Principle 6 requires that: “Headlines, sub-headings, and captions should accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to cover”. Principle 1 requires that publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission.

[7] While the Council acknowledges that both of the headlines used in relation to this story may be distasteful to some readers, it notes that headlines (in particular homepage headlines) are often deliberately crafted to titillate and to draw readers in. While some headlines may cross the line, in this case the headlines accurately and fairly convey a key element of the story. The use of inverted commas on the front page headline indicates it was claimed the death was a result of a sex game. Use of the word ‘allegedly’ above the main story is somewhat clearer, but serves the same purpose.

[8] The article itself notes that the accused has been taken into custody; that he had reportedly told police that the death was as a result of a “sex game” that went wrong; and, that he had been charged with a form of homicide under Swiss law. It also notes the results of a post-mortem suggesting death was a result of suffocation or asphyxiation and that the victim had small cuts on her body, including on her neck. The headline accurately reflects the substance of the story. The story itself appears fair and balanced, there has been no suggestion that it is inaccurate.

Principles 1 and 6 – Accuracy Fairness and Balance; Headlines and Captions: Not upheld

[9] Mr Aretino suggests that the headlines, by placing emphasis on the accused’s claim the death was a result of a sex game gone wrong, gives the accused’s defence undeserved prominence over what may in reality be the straightforward murder of an innocent woman. He appears to suggest that as this, in his view, trivialises violence against women, it engages Media Council principle 7 regarding discrimination and diversity. However, the Council does not consider that the story places gratuitous emphasis on the victim’s gender, or any of the other categories covered by this principle. The Media Council, however, accepts that there is a risk that the use of such headlines may trivialise violence against women and notes the editor’s acknowledgement of Mr Aretino’s concerns and that fact that the NZ Herald will be mindful of them in future coverage of the case.

Principle 7 – Discrimination and Diversity: Not upheld

Media Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay, Tim Watkin and Tracy Watkins.


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