Fiona Walls, formerly an adviser to Nelson primary schools on teaching Mathematics, complained that an article in the weekend edition of The Nelson Mail on 24 November 2001 compromised her professional reputation and that the quality of the journalism was "highly questionable"; comments about the attitudes of educational professionals to childrens’ learning, which she believed to be " bordering on the slanderous", went unchallenged; moreover, she contended, the piece provided "self-advertisement" for the promoters of a mathematical teaching device and failed to evaluate the product and the claims made on its behalf.

As a matter of interest this is the first complaint dealt with by the Council as one emanating from the complainant reading the said article via the internet. At the time of publication Ms Walls was living in Vanuatu and read the article from the newspaper company’s website.

The article in question gave extended coverage to the recriminations of a couple, living in Golden Bay, about negativity, and even obstruction, on the part of the educational establishment over the introduction of a mathematical education tool (named by them a fractal abacus) which the husband had invented and which together they had promoted, at considerable personal cost, around the country. The underlying theme was the old story of individual battlers thwarted by an indifferent bureaucracy. As such it was an unvarnished human interest story with a local context. There was no attempt to analyse the issues in terms of the national debate about educational standards or recent reports about poor performance in mathematical learning or the effect of these things on government policies about joining "the knowledge wave". Nor was any effort made to evaluate current official doctrine on mathematics teaching at the primary level.

Ms Walls was mentioned in two sentences in a 15-1600 word piece. The couple in question were reported as alleging that although the teachers at their local school in Collingwood had been interested (in introducing the device), they "did not do anything because of the negative reaction of the Nelson regional maths adviser, Fiona Walls. (Ms Walls has now left her position but has previously expressed reservations about the product.)"

The Nelson Mail reporter could not make contact with Ms Walls before his deadline. The editor subsequently justified the reference to her previously expressed reservations about this teaching tool by citing a report in the Sunday News of 23 September 2001 which, he said, the reporter had before him when he wrote the piece. The Sunday News quoted Ms Walls to the effect that the device did not fit the broad thrust of current policy on maths teaching. Ms Walls’s more specific views about the merits or otherwise of the abacus and its potential for development and improvement were not covered.

This was unfortunate. It would undoubtedly have added balance and depth to the article to have outlined Ms Walls’s views and/or those of other experts with experience of the full range of issues surrounding the teaching of mathematics at primary level and the techniques and instructional aids available. It must be noted, however, that the editor of The Nelson Mail tried hard to persuade Ms Walls herself to write a rejoinder to the 24 November article, which she declined; she considered the 1000 words offered would not be enough to cover the issues and, in any case, she had since left the district. This too was unfortunate in that Ms Walls denied herself the opportunity of putting the record to rights. Nevertheless, since Ms Walls’s general position on this particular device was already known and on the record, (and in tune with the general thrust of educational policy) the Press Council does not uphold this element of her complaint - to the effect that her professional reputation has been compromised.

The second element in this complaint concerns journalistic standards. In their statements to The Nelson Mail the promoters of the abacus maintained that failure to accept their product could be attributed to the self-promotion of a "professional mafia" not interested in helping New Zealand children. The report had the comment that this was "strong stuff" but did not subject these and other similar assertions to critical analysis. The editor justified this approach: readers were left to judge the merits of such statements for themselves. The Press Council accepted this argument. Most readers would have seen the piece as no more than a report of the views of an especially disenchanted pair of residents of the district. The editor also noted that the article did report a range of opinions about the abacus itself. Ms Walls, for her part, however, was concerned not only about the classroom usefulness of the abacus, but about wider issues ­ that the quality of education had been thrown into question and the work being done to develop a new numeracy programme had been mentioned only in passing. She claimed that it is the duty of a reporter to get at both sides of a story. Her concerns reflect the understandable annoyance of a professional person that those actually grappling with the issues should not be getting a fair hearing. The Press Council, however, did not see the purpose behind this article as requiring this sort of treatment.

In correspondence with Ms Walls, the editor undertook to produce in-house a further article analysing the issues surrounding the teaching of mathematics in the district. That is to be commended. Where space is limited and staff thinly spread a serial approach to stories confronting large issues is entirely appropriate. In this way The Nelson Mail is to address this aspect of the complaint.

The complaint by Fiona Walls is not upheld.


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