Case Number: 2647

Council Meeting: JANUARY 2018

Decision: Upheld

Publication: The Dominion Post

Ruling Categories: Accuracy


An article, headlined Unlock the door and throw away the key, published inThe Dominion Post, on November 25, 2017 drew a complaint that it breached Principle 1: Accuracy, fairness and balance.

The Complaint

Jim Rose complained that mathematical errors underlaid a feature article claim that 42 per cent of prisoners were in jail for relatively minor offences.

A table published with the article showed 21 per cent were in prison for serious and violent assaults, 20 for sexual offences, 14 per cent for home invasions and burglary, 9 per cent for aggravated robbery and robbery and 7 per cent for homicide. These add up to 71 per cent of prisoners. Another 12 per cent were in for drug importation, dealing, manufacturing or cultivating and were not harmless drug users.

“I do not know how you could argue with a straight face that fewer people should be imprisoned if 71 per cent of them are violent and sex offenders and a good part of the balance are drug traffickers. Surprisingly few petty, non-violent offenders end up in prison in New Zealand.”

Much of the article hung off the claim that 42 per cent of prisoner were in for minor offences and represent minimal or no danger to the public, when the accompanying table showed the number was well under half of that or something like 15 per cent.

He said the error in arithmetic goes to the very heart of the credibility of one side of the argument over prison numbers.

The Response

Editor in Chief Central Region Bernadette Courtney was surprised a formal complaint had been lodged as she thought an initial complaint from Mr Rose had been dealt with in a long conversation with the writer of the article.

The feature was written in response to Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis’ claim that his government was keen to cut the prison population by 30 per cent over the next 15 years. It analysed what cutting the population by that kind of figure would look like.

The 42 per cent figure put forward by the writer was taken from Corrections Department figures that suggested 42 per cent could be described as low level offenders who could be considered for early release or other punishment outside prison.

A pie chart, which the writer had used to come up with this figure, had been put forward for publication with the article but unfortunately another table supplied by the Sensible Sentencing Trust was used instead.

The figure of 42 per cent was put forward as one possible number and was arrived at by adding up the low level offences and then splitting the section for home invasions and burglaries.

Ms Courtney added “the whole issue is highly subjective and while it is possible to arrive at a number of figures and percentages, there are various consequences whatever is done.”

The Discussion

There is clearly some confusion here and it is not surprising given the rough and ready way statistics have been used.

This was not helped when The Dominion Post mistakenly did not use a graph relied upon by the writer.

The Corrections Department pie chart headed “Prisoners according to most serious offence types” was the basis for the writer’s suggestion that 42 per cent ­­­- who were in prison for dishonesty, drugs, anti-social behaviour, traffic and other administrative or property abuses - were in jail for “relatively minor offences.”

This is contentious ground and the writer has not justified how he has minimised what many would classify as serious offences. It certainly begs the question as to why judges, who have considerable powers of discretion and a range of sentencing options, were compelled to send these people to prison.

Some indication can be taken from the Sensible Sentencing Trust chart, which was published with the article, showing the average number of previous convictions for each category of offender. We also note Mr Rose’s comment that surprisingly few petty, non-violent offenders end up in prison.

In her letter to the Press Council Ms Courtney confused matters further by reclassifying what the writer deemed to be “relatively minor offences,” downgrading them again to “low level offences.”

Clearly the 42 per cent figure was also totally at odds with the graph which was printed with the article. As Mr Rose noted this graph showed 21 per cent were in for serious and violent assaults, 20 for sexual offences, 14 per cent for home invasions and burglary, 9 per cent for aggravated robbery and robbery,7 per cent for homicide and 12 per cent were in for drug importing, dealing, manufacturing or cultivating. Together these account for 83 per cent of prisoners.

Ms Courtney referred to the article as a feature. Generally speaking that is a word used to describe a story which aims to give readers a deeper understanding of a subject.

This article presented a range of opinions on how prison numbers may be cut, but careless use of statistics, weak analysis and the error in failing to use the Corrections Department graph its writer relied upon, leavesThe Dominion Post open to criticism.

Mr Rose is justified in challenging it on the grounds of accuracy.

The complaint is upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.


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