Federated Farmers of New Zealand claims The New Zealand Herald failed to comply with Principles 5 (Headlines and Captions) and 10 (Photographs and Graphics) in relation to a story published on March 13, 2013. The paper’s front page included a photograph of a slaughterman about to destroy a sitting cow with the headline Tough Times on Drought Farms. The story itself, on page 5, was headed Drought Takes Deadly Toll on Farms, with a sub-heading Boom for North Island pet food processors as numbers of ailing cattle being destroyed doubles. The page 5 piece included a larger version of the photo published on the front page.

The image portrayed the slaughterman training a rifle at the head of an animal obviously at the point of shooting it. The page 5 photograph carried the caption Slaughterman Kent Sambells has had to destroy 50 cows affected by drought in the Waikato. More pictures at listener.co.nz.

The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

The story covered an apparent upsurge in the number of cattle being destroyed on North Island farms, the upsurge being attributed to the recent drought. The story claimed pet food processors were busy with more destroyed animals than usual being delivered up to them. The story referred to the slaughterman Mr Sambells’ increased workload in the previous week, he having destroyed 50 “ailing” cattle when normally his workload was half that. The story referred to a West Huntly farmer who had asked Mr Sambells to destroy two of his cattle. One, “Cocopops”, had fallen in the yard and injured its hip and a second was suffering from eczema. The farmer indicated that one of the reasons that these animals had been put down was the lack of feed caused by the drought. The story reported a Primary Industries Ministry spokesman as saying there had been no change in the condition of stock generally as a result of the summer drought.

The Complaint
Federated Farmers says the story breached Principles 5 and 10 on, basically, two grounds. First, the use of the “shocking” photograph implied there was a major stock issue on all drought affected farms. The use of the photograph was inappropriate since the animal in question had been injured by an accident unconnected with the drought. It was wrong for the Herald to use the photograph without explaining the true circumstances. Secondly, Federated Farmers claims that any person of “average intelligence” seeing the photograph, headlines and caption would conclude that “the drought was so severe that farmers were shooting their stock en-masse”. Federated Farmers claims that the Herald’s approach with the story and photograph amounted to a “false, misleading and a damaging slur not supported by the truth”.

Federated Farmers refers also to communications between the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Herald immediately before the story was published. Federated Farmers says while these communications put the issue in a proper context the Herald failed to present the true story. Federated Farmers also points to the photograph having been published on the New Zealand Listener website but with a far more balanced caption. The Listener referred to the injured animal not being able to fend for itself following its fall. The Listener caption said Usually the cow would be left to sit and eat grass around it but with herds having to walk miles in search of grass [the slaughterman] felt it was more humane to put it out of its misery.

The Response
The New Zealand Herald responds by saying that the story did not breach Principles 5 and 10. While the Herald acknowledges the image was “powerful” and likely “shocking” to some, it is in fact a “strong news photograph”. The Herald says that despite Federated Farmers’ views the cow’s destruction was linked to the drought. The story made it clear the animal may have survived had it been able to easily access normal feed. Further, the Herald says there is no doubt pet food processors were experiencing “busier times” as a result of the weather. The reality is that the drought was having all sorts of unsatisfactory effects for farmers. Stock were suffering. The Herald acknowledges that while the image was likely distressing to some readers its use demonstrated the difficulties farmers were facing as a result of the weather in a way no other photo or story could have done. The Herald says its headlines and captions were accurate.

The Herald says there was nothing in the story suggesting the animal was inhumanely treated.

The Decision
As far as Federated Farmers’ complaint about the headlines and caption is concerned Principle 5 provides 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”.

The issue is whether the headlines and caption in this case fairly imparted the story’s thrust.

While those associated with the farming industry appear to have viewed the effect of the drought differently (as demonstrated by the published statements by the Primary Industries Ministry spokesman on the one hand and pet food industry sources on the other) there is little doubt the drought had had an adverse effect on farms. Pet food processors had reported a recent significant increase in business as a result of higher numbers of animals being destroyed on farms. The Ministry of Primary Industries did not deny this aspect but did say that the condition of uninjured animals was not deteriorating as a result of the drought.

The Council has been presented with various versions of the reasoning behind the slaughter of the animal in the photograph and is unable to weight the factors of injury versus drought. Probably only the farmer could say to what extent the drought had impacted on his decision to kill the cow, however it certainly it seems likely that both factors were in play in the decision-making. While the injury was not noted in the caption the circumstances were included in the article. The Herald could have made it clear the cow in the photo was the injured cow of the story, but not doing so did not make the article or the caption inaccurate in this regard. Readers looking at the photo, and reading the article would generally make the connection for themselves.

Of more concern is the fact the caption attributed the slaughter-rate of 50 cows to the drought, whereas the article makes it clear that only half this number is actually drought-related. The Federated Farmers’ complaint did not develop this point, and the Herald did not respond on it, so the Press Council puts this matter aside.

With regard to the image, Principle 10 requires newspapers to handle photographs showing distressing and shocking situations with care and with special consideration for those affected. There is no doubt the image in question is a graphic one. It is certainly powerful. Nor is there any doubt some members of the community would have been disturbed it. Nonetheless the image reflects a reality. Farm animals are routinely put down usually at the abattoir but also on the farm when it is humane to do so.

The Press Council does not believe the image should have been suppressed simply because some might be upset by it. The image does not overtly show the effects of unacceptable violence. The image does not suggest any gratuitous brutality or cruelty. There is nothing in the image or the article itself suggesting that the animal was being treated otherwise than humanely.

The Press Council does not take account of communications which may have taken place between the Primary Industries Ministry and the Herald. The Council has not seen all these exchanges. Nor are the Council’s views affected by the way the Listener presented the photograph. The Council notes that the Herald article referred to the animal having been injured as the Listener indicated. The Council is not aware of any complaint Federated Farmers has made to the Listener.

The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Clive Lind and Stephen Stewart.

John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint


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