Case Number: 2753

Council Meeting: MARCH 2019

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: Radio NZ

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Unfair Coverage


(1) Grant Anson objects to RNZ’s publication of a January 21 BBC story “Video of US students taunting Native American draw fire” on its website.

(2) He argues that the story breaches Principle 1 – Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.

(3) The story reported that video footage of students, many wearing Make America Great Again caps, taunting a Native American man Nathan Phillips in Washington DC had drawn criticism. The Covington Catholic High school students were seen in the video mocking Phillips, the story said, as he sang and drummed. The students were at an anti-abortion rally. Phillips was at an Indigenous People’s March.

(4) A brief video is contained within the story. The story describes footage as showing the teens mocking Phillips as he sings the American Indian Movement Song, with one boy staring at him while other students mockingly sing the song.

(5) The story notes the subsequent social media outrage along with an apology by the boys’ school, which condemned their action. It also notes that a congresswoman tweeted that the boys showed “blatant hate, disrespect and intolerance”.

The Complaint

(6) Mr Anson says the story breached Principle 1 and did not exhibit accuracy, fairness or balance. It deliberately misled readers/viewers by commission and omission and it gave no voice to the opposition view on a controversial subject.

(7) Mr Anson says especial care should be taken when the article “implies racism and bullying, attributes it to a political party and to a school and then proceeds to identify the school and … children”.

(8) He says the article made inaccurate statements that the students were taunting Phillips, when no taunting or mocking was evident from the video clip with the story. The article acknowledged other social media footage, which Anson says corrects the inaccuracies in the story.

(9) Mr Anson identifies what he says are other narratives available to RNZ, that they omitted from the story. He says the school children were abused by a group of activists, and Phillips and his associates had emerged from behind this group, and Phillips had advanced toward the students. One chose to not step out of Phillips’ way and the two stood facing each other.

(10) Mr Anson says one of Phillips’ associates racially abused the school children, some of whom were chanting with – not against – Phillips. The true picture was of school children being racially abused by one group and then confronted by Native Americans who were hostile to the students, Mr Anson says.

(11) Mr Anson says “Faced with all of that the schoolboys either moved aside or sang along. One boy did neither and instead simply stood his ground.”

(12) Mr Anson said “the motivating political bias is on display again – Denigrate the rural … white Trump supporters as racists and while you are at it falsely associate them with the cause du jour of the southern border wall impasse”.

The Response

(13) RNZ responded that they did not agree with Mr Anson’s assertions, and upon review could not conclude that any Media Council principles were breached. The item factually reported what happened when a Native American person came between a group of Jewish protesters and a group of high school students.

(14) “While any number of implications might be drawn from such a report, none were contained in the report,”RNZ said.

The Discussion

Principle 1 Accuracy Fairness and Balance - Not Upheld

(15) Mr Anson complains that the story breaches Principle 1 of the NZ Media Council which states:

Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission. In articles of controversy or disagreement a fair voice must be given to the opposition view.

Exceptions may apply for long-running issues where every side of an issue or argument cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion and in reportage of proceedings where balance is to be judged on a number of stories, rather than a single report.

(16) The story is based on the information that was sourced at the time, and was the first version or take of an online story that continued to evolve. The video clip that accompanies the story could reasonably be interpreted as depicting the students mocking Mr Phillips, as opposed to supporting him. The story includes comment from the students’ school – the appropriate source to contact to provide balance to the story from the students’ perspective. The school chose to condemn the students’ actions – as noted in another complaint which references the same story, this shouldn’t distract from the fact that balance was sought from an appropriate source.

(17) Many of the points Mr Anson makes refer to information which came to light after theRNZ story was published. The Media Council has to assess the content and publication of the original story in making this decision. However, this complaint raises the point - what is the obligation ofRNZ to alter the original BBC story once other context emerges.

(18) The RNZ story remains online with no reference to the subsequent context that emerged, that may well alter the reader’s perception of what took place. To be consistent (See Horsburgh v Stuff complaint) the Media Council recommendsthatRNZ alter the original story to contain links to BBC or RNZ stories that were subsequently published that provided more information/context.

(19) The Media Council recommends that RNZ add to the beginning of the story, above the story’s introduction line: “Subsequent toRNZ’s publication of this January 21, 2019 BBC story, fresh context emerged within other stories published. That context is accessible via story links embedded in this story, at the request of the NZ Media Council”.

(20) The Media Council notes that the RNZ story contains a reference to Mr Phillips being a Vietnam War Veteran. We understand this is not the case, and ask thatRNZ investigate and if appropriate remove the reference.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Marie Shroff, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay and Tracy Watkins.

Tim Watkin took no part in the consideration of this complaint.


Lodge a new Complaint.



Search for previous Rulings.

New Zealand Media Council

© 2024 New Zealand Media Council.
Website development by Fueldesign.