Case Number: 2501

Council Meeting: MAY 2016

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Headlines and Captions
Unfair Coverage


Jenny Kirk complained on March 4 about the “serious inaccuracy” of a headline that appeared on the Stuff website on March 3, regarding Labour’s decision to support the second reading of a bill designed to reform zero hours contract legislation.

Stuff reported Labour had voted in favour of the bill at its second reading, conditional on changes to the final law, and that National had indicated a willingness to meet Labour’s bottom lines.

The headline in question read: ‘Zero hours’ employment bill passes with Labour vote.

The Complaint

The Council takes Ms Kirk’s complaint as under two principles; 1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance and 6) Headlines and Captions. In her initial email to Stuff Editor Patrick Crewdson on the morning of March 4, she says the headline is “totally wrong” and “confusing to readers. They are assuming that Labour has actually voted for legislation which allows her contracts to be put into place for workers”.

The complainant includes comments under the story from readers showing criticism of the headline and confusion over Labour’s position.

Ms Kirk, a former Labour MP, points out that the headline is at odds with the story; Labour’s vote was only at the second reading, which does not pass the bill into law. Rather, as the story rightly reports, the vote pushed it “through to the next stage in parliament”. A bill passes into law on its third reading.

When the headline is changed (sometime between 9:17am and 10:49am), Ms Kirk goes onto complain that the correction is insufficient and that she expects Stuff to put up a public statement saying the original headline was wrong - what she calls a retraction.

The Response

Patrick Crewdson passed the complaint onto Political Editor Tracy Watkins, who replied to Ms Kirk acknowledging the headline did not fairly represent Labour’s position and promising an amendment.

Watkins did not consider the headline inaccurate but agreed it was confusing. She says she received Kirk’s complaint at 9:17am and responded to her at 10:36am, by which time the headline had already been changed and a sentence added by the reporter “clarifying the status of the legislation”. (Ms Kirk says the change was made at 10:49am).

Watkins continues, “I did not consider [a retraction] necessary because the headline had been clarified promptly, any confusion would have been minor and the story full explained Labour’s position. Further to this, the fact that Labour went on to support the legislation through its final stages shows the original headline did not in any way unfairly or inaccurately reflect the intent or meaning of Labour’s position”.

The Discussion

Contrary to Watkins’ assertion, the original headline was clearly more than just confusing, it was inaccurate. No bill had been passed, with or without Labour’s vote. That is, as Ms Kirk says, not good journalism.

However, Stuff reacted promptly to the complaint, and while the timeframe is disputed, the error was corrected within at most an hour and a half. The new headline was accurate and is not disputed.

While Ms Kirk argues a correction, however prompt, is insufficient and a retraction required, the Council does not uphold complaints when the journalists have reacted responsibly and in a timely manner to correct their errors. This was a bad mistake for a gallery journalist and one that clearly confused some readers. However, there is no evidence this was any more than human error and we do not want to discourage media from making such corrections.

So while the original headline clearly failed both principles, the prompt correction and admission of error means the complaint isnot upheld on Principle 1 or Principle 6.

In the interest of maintaining Stuff’s credibility, however, the Council would note that international best practice is for the same page to carry an explanation of the error and why the correction was required, to give context to the comments written before the change and ensure readers coming back to the story understand the amendment.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Mark Stevens, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.


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