JOHN PAUL COLLEGE AGAINST NEWSHUB

Case Number: 3100

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2021

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Discovery TV3 Newshub

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Children and Young People
Photographs
Privacy
Schools, Identification of
Social Media
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. Patrick Walsh, Principal of John Paul College, complains on behalf of the college about an item published on theNewshub website on June 30, 2021. He considers there was a breach of Media Council Principles 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance), 2 (privacy) and 3 (children and young persons).

2. The Media Council does not uphold the complaint.

Background

3. On June 30, 2021 Newshub published an item headed “Parents at Rotorua’s John Paul College shocked after videos of school brawls posted online.” It reported on a “swathe of videos of pupils fighting each other” that had been posted on social media, and was accompanied by a short video clip showing four of the fights. Participants’ features were blurred.

4. The article reported that Newshub had obtained footage of five separate fights, all of which were believed to have been filmed within the last month. A parent was said to have found “video after video of kids fighting at JPC” in her son’s Snapchat group and said that hundreds of children had been watching them. She complained that the school was doing nothing about it and that the action that was taken was insufficient.

5. The article also recorded Mr Walsh’s response to the allegations. He said that the school took fighting seriously and was disciplining the students involved. Some students had already been suspended or stood down.

6. The article concluded with mention of a recent investigation (initiated by the school board) into allegations of racism, bullying and elitism at the school. The investigation had found the claims to be false or incorrect but had made some recommendations for improved practices. A link to a relevant news story was provided.

7. Prior to publication of the item, Newshub had sought comment from the complainant in an email, saying “We've been sent several very graphic videos of fighting between students at JPC, some in which dozens of students can be seen watching on or filming in the background. We’ve also spoken to a parent who says they are one of many who are very concerned by the videos. They say JPC is aware of the fighting but is doing nothing because it wants to protect its reputation”.

8. Mr Walsh responded saying “The College does take fighting seriously and we are in the process of taking appropriate disciplinary action against the students involved. These are isolated incidents but happen in every school from time to time.” He denied the criticism of the school’s disciplinary processes, saying the school’s “paramount concern was the students’ safety.” He asked that the videos not be placed on the media feed since “that would be gratuitous and victimise the students involved.”

9. There was further email correspondence after publication of the article whenNewshub sought comment on further concerns expressed by a parent about the school’s disciplinary process. Mr Walsh declined to comment, citing privacy reasons.


The Complaint

10. Mr Walsh complains:

  • Insufficient care was taken to obscure the identities of the students involved in the fights, and they have now been publicly identified. There is not enough public interest in the issue to outweigh the damage caused to the students.
  • The school was not given an opportunity to comment on the videos, one of which was made in 2019 and another of which shows “play fighting”.
  • Nor was it given an opportunity to comment on the parent’s inaccurate description of the disciplinary process as “friendship talks” when the school uses restorative justice processes.
  • There had not been hundreds of children watching the videos.
  • The report included mention of the facts of a specific disciplinary process that was still under way. This meant the school was unable to comment for privacy reasons
  • The additional reporting about the investigation into systemic racism was irrelevant and unnecessary.

The Response

11. The complaint was referred to the TV3 Standards Committee for response. The Committee considered there had been no breach of any of the Media Council principles. It found that those shown in the videos were not identifiable beyond those who would already have known about the matter. The reporter had sent two emails, offering the school ample opportunity to respond to the allegations.

12. A quote from a parent about the number of students filming the fights was later found to be inaccurate and was corrected in a timely manner. In relation to another parent’s description of the school’s disciplinary process, the committee was satisfied that the use of incorrect terminology was not misleading.

13. It did not agree that there was any unfairness in providing a link to a previous article about the school being cleared of allegations of racism, bullying and elitism.

14. Finally, the Committee found that “the article was a serious report that had high value related to legitimate public concern and exposed anti-social and harmful conduct in the community.” It was satisfied that the school had reasonable opportunity to comment and that its comments were fairly and adequately presented.

The Decision

15. Media Council Principle 2 protects the privacy of individuals so long as there is no interference with the publication of significant matters of public interest. Media Council Principle 3 requires an exceptional degree of public interest before the interests of children or young people can be overridden.

16. It is clearly not in the interests of those shown in the videos to be publicly identified. Equally, there is a very strong public interest in reporting events that may expose deficiencies in schools’ care for the wellbeing of their pupils.

17. The Media Council notes that to some extent the privacy of the fight participants had already been compromised by the publication of the videos on social media. The blurring of the features in the published videos was sufficient to ensure that they would be very unlikely to be recognised by a member of the public with no previous knowledge of the issues. Accordingly it finds that the small risk of recognition was outweighed by the very substantial public interest in the reporting of the fights. There was no breach of Principles 2 or 3.

18. The remaining issues fall to be considered under Principle 1 and are largely matters of fairness.Newshub has addressed one instance of inaccuracy and the only remaining inaccuracy issue of any substance is the statement that the fights “were believed to have been filmed within the last month”. Mr Walsh says one of the videos dates from 2019 and one is of a “play fight”. Having viewed the videos, Media Council members could not easily identify a “play fight” and are of the view that this is a case where appearances matter and the video would be likely to have the same effect on viewers as those of other fights. It was not an inaccuracy to include it in the report. As to the 2019 video, there was no absolute statement as to the dates of the videos. The article stated that they werebelieved to have been filmed more recently, and there is no reason to doubt that the belief was genuine.

19. The fairness issues mostly concern the opportunity given to the school for comment before publication of the article and accompanying video. It is noted that the second of the two emails sent by the reporter was sent after the article had been published and was offering an opportunity to comment on further allegations made by a parent. As there does not appear to have been any further publication after that of June 30, this email is not relevant to the complaint.

20. The first email invites comment on the fight videos that Newshub proposed to publish and on a parent’s concern that the school was aware of the fighting but was doing nothing about it. This is an adequate description of most of the article, and it is noted that Mr Walsh is quoted at some length about the school’s response to the fighting, including both his comment to theNewshub reporter and material from an email later sent to parents. The only possible deficiency is omitting to outline the more detailed concerns expressed by a parent about her perceptions of weakness in the school’s disciplinary process. The parent’s description of “friendship talks” does not align with accepted restorative justice processes and Mr Walsh may have had some specific comment on this. However while the Media Council believes it would have been good practice to include at least some of this detail in the email to Mr Walsh, it is also of the view that his more general comments reported earlier in the article are equally applicable to the further allegations..

21. Finally, Mr Walsh complains that it was unfair and irrelevant to mention the recent investigation into allegations about the school. Given that the investigation was initiated by the school and that it found the allegations to be without substance, the Media Council considers that it was very relevant as an illustration of the action taken by the school on allegations made against it and on the merits of such allegations.

Determination

22.The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Sandy Gill, Jonathan MacKenzie, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff and Tim Watkin.

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