FEDERATED FARMERS AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2784

Council Meeting: JUNE 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought

Overview

1. This is a complaint that Stuff did not have a suitable process for handling complaints and took too long to correct mistakes in a story.

2. On March 18, 2019 Stuff ran a story headlined Federated Farmers says AK-47 and AR-15 semi-automatic firearms have a place on farms.The article, published three days after the terror attacks on two Christchurch mosques, was based on an interview with Federated Farmers spokesman Miles Anderson and incorrectly reported him saying that AR-15 and AK-47s were commonly used on farms for pest control.

3. After a complaint from Federated Farmers the story was corrected and the headline was changed. It was initially changed to remove reference to the AK-47 and later changed again to readFederated Farmers says semi-automatic firearms have a place on farms.


The Complaint

4. Federated Farmers chief executive Terry Copeland said the story was seriously wrong in asserting that “AK-47s have a place on farms” but the main concern was that it was so difficult to get it fixed. The story remained uncorrected on the website for more than three hours, and remained uncorrected on Twitter for another 24 hours and the URL was not corrected for three days.

5. Federated Farmers was particularly concerned at:

  • The lack of obvious formal process, including a 24-hour phone contact available to the public to alert Stuff’s newsroom to misreporting.
  • The inability of a senior editor to be able to quickly verify the accuracy of a story or correct someone else’s story.They believed there was a need for a firm guideline to be set as to how long it should take for an error of significance (i.e. totally incorrect and influential reporting) to be corrected.

They believed there was a need for a firm guideline to be set as to how long it should take for an error of significance (i.e. totally incorrect and influential reporting) to be corrected.

6. Federated Farmers submitted a detailed timeline of its communications with Stuff in the hours after the story was first published at 3.52pm on March 18. It reports its comms advisor Simon Edwards made six calls to the Christchurch newsroom between 4.48pm and 5.13pm before he was able to reach Stuff business page editor Rebecca Stevenson. She asked for his concerns to be put in an email and at 5.26pm was sent an email saying it was extremely unlikely that Mr Anderson said that AK-47s had a place on farm. He asked for the headline to be corrected.

7. After a series of further calls Ms Stevenson sent an email at 6.20pm in which she said a recording of the interview with Mr Anderson confirmed he said AK-47s were used on farm. The story would not be corrected but mention of AK-47s would be removed “as a gesture of goodwill.” The headline was changed at 6.53pm.

8. At the same time as Mr Edwards was dealing with Ms Stevenson Federated Farmers general manager of communications Leigh Catley attempted to expedite matters by trying to call other senior Stuff staff, including editor-in-chief Patrick Crewdson, and the Stuff newsroom 0800 line. She finally got through to a night editor who agreed to review the story and headline after checking with the page editor and reporter.

9. The following morning she again attempted to contact Mr Crewdson. There was no reply but Stuff editor-in-chief (Business/Sport/Lifestyle) Geoff Collett called a short time later to discuss the correction and the time it took.At 11.38am he sent an email saying there had been unacceptable errors in reporting. He said the story had been further amended by removing reference to AR-15s. A footnote on the story had been updated to say an earlier version of the story had incorrectly quoted Mr Anderson as stating AR-15s and AK-47s were commonly used on farms for pest control. The URL had also been altered.

The Response

10. Mr Collett acknowledged that the original version of the story made an incorrect reference to AK-47 rifles being used on farms but said the complaint was complicated because of arguments over reference to the AR-15.

11. He disagreed with the core aspect of the complaint in which Federated Farmers believed Stuff did not have an effective process in place for handling complaints.

12. There was a modest delay, of perhaps half an hour, before Mr Edwards was able to get through to national business editor Rebecca Stevenson, whose staff had written and published the article. The delay was not unreasonable given the extreme busy-ness of the day and the time of the call towards the end of the working day for many staff. Ms Stevenson needed time to properly review the complaint, which requiring consulting other staff and reviewing notes, transcripts, etc. In the meantime she arranged for the article to be “buried” on the site.

13. Clearly Federated Farmers was dissatisfied with Ms Stevenson’s response, but that was a separate issue from the availability of Stuff personnel to receive and consider urgent complaints.

14. He believed Stuff had an obvious and easily found page on its website with comprehensive contact details and a complaints process which served as a reasonable mechanism. This was readily used by its audience, was a top result in a Google query “contact Stuff”, it linked from easily found locations on its mobile and desktop websites (including homepage footers) and “we are surprised that Federated Farmers’ communications staff were unable to locate this page.”

15. The email address provided for complaints was monitored continuously. The newsroom number promoted on the website directed to various cell phones but he acknowledged there could be delays in pick up outside business hours when fewer staff were on duty. It was extremely unusual for someone to say they could not contact Stuff with an urgent complaint and, as noted, Federated Farmers had made contact.

16. As for the third leg of the complaint, about the inability of a senior editor to verify/correct a story, he said any editor needed time to assess a complaint in detail to test its merits. With hindsight the erroneous reference to AK-47s was obvious, but in the circumstances senior staff who initially responded did not see it in such black-and-white terms. The time taken to thoroughly review the error and then remove it from the article was reasonable against the backdrop of an incredible busy news period in the aftermath of the Christchurch terror attacks. Reference to AK-47s was removed 90 minutes after Federated Farms first made contact with the appropriate editor. It took her about 60 minutes to contact the reporter so she could properly review the record of the interview.

17. He acknowledged that editing the headline and story to remove reference to the AK-47 should have been treated as an important point of accuracy rather than a gesture of goodwill. Removal of reference to AR-15s and changes to the URL and the social media post were addressed the following day. Ideally this should have been addressed at the same time but Ms Stevenson felt the substantive issue was reference to AK-47s.

18. The process for responding to the wider complaint became confused and messy because of differences of understanding regarding a reference to AR-15s. Ultimately Stuff accepted the contention that Mr Anderson did not specifically refer to AR-15s as an on-farm firearm and removed the reference to that too.

The Decision

19. This complaint has to be seen in the context of the terror attacks on the Christchurch mosques on March 15 in which 51 people were killed and many more were wounded. This prompted the Prime Minister to announce Government would change New Zealand’s gun laws to ban military style semi-automatic (MSSA) weapons similar to those used in these attacks.

20. AK-47s and AR-15s (when modified to take high-capacity magazines) are deemed MSSAs and in the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks it is not surprising that Federated Farmers were alarmed to see a headline and story stating erroneously that farmers commonly used and needed these weapons.

21. Federated Farmers moved swiftly to have the story corrected. According to its timeline it made its first call to Stuff less than an hour after the story was posted on-line and it took six calls and about 25 minutes before it was to reach able to reach the business page editor Rebecca Stevenson. She was sceptical but agreed to remove references to AK-47s as a gesture of goodwill, a partial fix which was carried out within about 90 minutes of receiving an email setting out the complaint. Stuff subsequently acknowledged the story was wholly wrong in referring to AK-47s and AR-15s and further corrections were made the following morning.

22. The Media Council is satisfied that Stuff made corrections as required and Federated Farmers have clearly accepted that.

23. However, the principal complaint here is one of process. Federated Farmers communications staff were desperate to urgently correct a potentially damaging story and frustrated that they could not make immediate phone contact with people who could do an instant fix.

24, Although the names of senior editors are listed on the contacts page on the Stuff website, it only lists their email addresses and not their phone numbers. It offers an 0800 number which switches through to various cell phones but getting a person to answer is clearly hit and miss, especially after normal business hours.Mr Edwards had contact details for the reporter who he had dealt with earlier in the day and it took six calls to Christchurch over 26 minutes before he finally got through to the editor responsible. She was sceptical of the complaint and did not give him the immediate response he had hoped for. As a backup Mr Edward’s colleague Leigh Catley made a flurry of calls casting around for other Stuff editors who could be called on but to little avail.

25. As frustrated as Federated Farmers comms staff may have been it appears that Stuff dealt with this matter expeditiously. With the rapid growth of on-line news, editors report increasing numbers of complaints from readers which are proving a challenge to deal with. The Media Council has previously faulted publications for failing to regularly monitor phone lines and email addresses where people are encouraged to leave complaints.

26. In this case Federated Farmers were able to get through to an editor and get a timely response, albeit not the instant fix they felt was justified. Corrections need to be handled with care and in this case Stuff editors responded appropriately.

27. The Media Council does not believe it is practical or appropriate to set firm guidelines for how long it should take to correct significant errors but obviously they should always be made as swiftly as possible. In this context the Media Council is not convinced there is a problem with Stuff’s processes.The complaint is 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.