JENNIFER SHIELDS AGAINST THE SOUTHLAND TIMES
Case Number: 3411
Council Meeting: 26 JUNE 2023
Decision: Not Upheld
Publication: Southland Times
Comment and Fact
Discrimination and Diversity
- Jennifer Shields has complained about an article headlined Anger over gender identity practice in swimming pool changing rooms, published by the Southland Times and Stuff on 12 May 2023. Ms Shields says the article amounted to poor reporting that contributed to disinformation about the trans community and threatened trans people’s lives. The complaint is not upheld.
- The article reports on a public meeting held by the Invercargill City Council to discuss the use of changing rooms at the Splash Palace swimming pools in the city. More than 100 people attended the meeting and concerns were raised that the council’s policy allowed anyone identifying as female to use the female changing rooms.
- One particular concern discussed in the story was that male sexual predators and paedophiles might take advantage of the situation to masquerade as trans people to abuse children. “Several” people expressed such fears for their children to the reporter, with one woman adding she didn’t want her daughter exposed to male genitalia in the changing rooms. Another stressed this wasn’t about being anti-trans, but rather worry about paedophiles taking advantage of the situation.
- Council staff pointed out there were five “family changing areas” anyone could use, the council followed the law around human rights and that they took the concerns raised at the meeting seriously.
- Jennifer Shields contacted the Southland Times on the evening of Friday 12 May in her capacity as Healthcare Lead of Qtopia, an LGBTQIA+ social service and advocacy organisation. She described the article as “incredibly poor reporting” that put the Rainbow community at risk of violence.
- The complainant cites Principle (7) Discrimination and Diversity, which says that issues of gender, religion, minority groups, sexual orientation, age, race, and mental or physical disability are legitimate subjects for media to cover but media should not place gratuitous emphasis on these areas.
- Ms Shields said the dominant narrative online is that gender diverse people are paedophiles grooming children and it is “incredibly irresponsible to report uncritically on these concerns” without giving more context.
- She stressed the amount of disinformation being spread about trans people and said it was Stuff’s responsibility not to publish disinformation.
- The story included “pejorative material relating to gender diverse people” and placed “gratuitous emphasis on this transphobic narrative”. Ms Shields suggested a significant re-write.
- The Southland Times editor rang Ms Shields on Monday morning, 15 May and the pair had a constructive conversation. The Southland Times agreed to make changes, at least adding context about the disinformation contributing to concerns of sexual violence.
- The Southland Times added a sentence that included links to two Stuff articles on a recent report by The Disinformation Project, which found “violent targeting” of New Zealand’s Rainbow community around Posie Parker’s visit to New Zealand.
- This update did not provide the context to assuage the complainant’s concerns “specifically, that 'concerns' about sexual violence and paedophilia are being intentionally generated in online spaces where the disinformation community organises”.
- Ms Shields also raised the question of whether the Media Council might consider her complaint under Principle (4) Comment and Fact, which says a clear distinction should be drawn between news and opinion and the material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate. She says media should “consider their responsibilities when it comes to reporting on disinformation”.
- The Southland Times editor described her contact with Ms Shields in much the same way as the complainant. She emailed Ms Shields thanking her for her thoughts on the story, writing, “From our perspective the story is not as such about the trans community but concerns parents have about male sexual predators and paedophiles. These concerns are genuine and it's a difficult discussion to have”. The editor says the concerns quoted from the meetings refer to the risk of men masquerading as trans people, not trans people themselves.
- The Southland Times points out the story included comment from Gender Minorities Aotearoa national coordinator Ahi Wi-Hongi “and their entire response was included into the story”. She stresses that at no point did the Southland Times compare trans people to paedophiles.
- The Southland Times editor called Ms Shields on Monday 15 May discussing The Disinformation Project report. The editor says she agreed to look at previous Stuff stories on the report and add anything relevant to the article. Ms Shields agreed to be a source for future stories on trans issues and to point the Southland Times to people in Southland who could speak for the community.
- When Ms Shields emailed to say she was disappointed with the edit, the Southland Times editor removed a photo and a quote, although she doesn’t say which ones. She asked if Ms Shields would write an opinion piece.
- The next day, Thursday 18 May, a Southland Times reporter interviewed Ms Shields and on Friday 19 May the Southland Times published an article angled on Ms Shield’s support for more gender-neutral stalls at Splash Palace and her concerns that some at the meeting had been “stirring up fear and spreading disinformation”.
- Before discussing the heart of the complaint under Principle (7) Discrimination and Diversity, it’s worth noting that this is an accurate report of an Invercargill public meeting and Ms Shields has not complained on accuracy grounds. It is not a broad article on trans issues and so readers should not and would not expect the level of depth Ms Shields suggests is required.
- Ms Shields does ask whether the Council might consider her complaint under Principle (4) Comment and Fact, given her concern that our media members need to keep in mind their responsibility not to spread disinformation.
- Principle (4) has traditionally covered opinion pieces and commentary rather than news stories such as this. We take Ms Shield’s interesting question to suggest that media should take some responsibility for the accuracy of the quotes used in news stories, out of concern that some opinions expressed by people in news stories could be disinformation i.e. false information deliberately spread to mislead.
- The Council agrees that the media should be careful in most cases not to publish inaccurate quotes, especially as the number of bad faith actors spreading disinformation appears to be growing in reach and number. However there will be times when even publishing inaccurate quotes is appropriate. For example, if a public figure has erred and is being quoted for the sake of accountability.
- More relevant in this case though is that there must be a very high bar for media to censor the views of citizens, even if those views are controversial, disputed, or even ill-informed. A critical part of the media’s role is to hold up a mirror to society as it is, not to present society as a particular person or group might wish it to be. Further, editorial choices need to allow for specific circumstances and nuance. The fact that there is disinformation online linking the trans community to child abuse does not mean any mention of abuse in a story discussing trans issues can be attributed to that disinformation.
- In this story, there is no evidence those quoted are either victims or perpetrators of disinformation, nor is there evidence these views aren’t genuinely held by those quoted. Ms Shields in her follow-up story acknowledges that. So the complaint under Principle (4) is not upheld.
- Looking at Principle (7) the discussion of the trans community was hardly gratuitous in reporting this Invercargill meeting about changing rooms. That community was at the heart of the issue. But that defence of the Southland Times also means it is a stretch for the paper to claim “the story is not as such about the trans community”.
- To that end, the Southland Times could have done better by giving a voice to the Rainbow community discussed in this article and providing some context for the debate. The paper says it includes the “entire response” from Ahi Wi-Hongi of Gender Minorities Aotearoa, but that’s hard to square with the single sentence with no quote that appears in the story. A fuller response that addressed the ongoing issue of changing rooms would have provided more balance. But the Council notes the Southland Times has acknowledged that, made changes to the copy as agreed to provide context about disinformation and published a prompt follow-up story providing the voice largely missing from the first story. This provides balance overtime. The Southland Times editor engaged promptly and politely and that deserves acknowledgement.
- All of which is to address some important issues Ms Shields raises about the level of disinformation currently aimed at the transgender community here and abroad. However in this case, the Southland Times is right to point out that the concerns raised in the story are not about the trans community but about paedophiles and sex abusers.
- Crucially, those quoted in the story did not perpetuate the idea of trans people as child abusers, as seen in the disinformation Ms Shields refers to. Rather, they expressed concern that child abusers could masquerade as trans people to commit abuse. The views expressed placed no blame on the Rainbow community and neither did they promote any violence towards or discrimination of that community.
- We commend the constructive approach taken by both parties.
- This article does not spread disinformation or put the Rainbow community at risk, but rather is an accurate report on a public meeting. The Southland Times has done a follow-up story providing the sort of balance that would have improved the original article and seems to be engaging more constructively with both the complainant and its local Rainbow community.
- The complaint under Principle (7) is not upheld.
Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Hank Schouten, Rosemary Barraclough, Tim Watkin, Jonathan Mackenzie, Jo Cribb, Marie Shroff, Alison Thom, Reina Vaai, Richard Pamatatau.