KAPITI COLLEGE AGAINST KAPITI NEWSThe Press Council has upheld complaints by Paraparaumu and Kapiti Colleges against the Kapiti News for its coverage of allegations that bullying at the colleges had led to youth suicides. The Council has found the newspaper breached its principles in three areas – accuracy, balance and Children and Young People.
In a front-page article on October 18, 2006, headlined Kapiti Schools Under Fire Over Suicides, the Kapiti News reported: “Bullying at Kapiti schools by both teachers and students is responsible for a series of youth suicides in the area, friends of the victims say.” Two former, unnamed students of Kapiti College were the source.
A large accompanying picture showed an unidentified young woman with her head in her hands.
The article reported the women as saying five of their friends had committed suicide in the last 12 months, that the “problem” stemmed from the schools and that in the prior six weeks, four students, one as young as 15, had taken their own lives. The women were highly critical of the schools and teachers. The assistant principal of Paraparaumu College was quoted as vigorously denying the allegations and the head of Kapiti College as saying he was surprised by the claims because the school did everything it could to combat bullying.
On page 3 of the same issue were separate articles more fully quoting Kapiti College principal John Russell and Paraparaumu College assistant principal Cliff van Schooten. Both defended their schools and, in support, quoted Education Review Office reports.
The day after publication, October 19, Kapiti College’s Board of Trustees Chairman Bruce Henry complained to the editor of the Kapiti News. On November 1, Paraparaumu College BOT Chair Mrs Sue Ordish wrote a similar letter of complaint.
The letters said the front-page article was unbalanced, contained gross errors of fact and inconsistencies, and did the schools and the wider community a major disservice. The articles on page 3 did not provide redress.
The colleges said one Kapiti College student had taken her own life in the last nine years, and that had been unrelated to school experience, while there had been one such death in the 19 years’ experience of the Paraparaumu College principal.
Kapiti College also said when the journalist contacted the principal, he did not outline any details of claims but simply said he was following up on claims that bullying was rife at the school.
On October 25, the Kapiti News followed up its report with an article headed: School Meets Over Bullying. It said assemblies had been held in the past week by Kapiti College to discuss bullying and how Mr Russell had sent home a letter to parents informing them the school was absolutely committed to providing a safe learning climate for all students. It then went on to quote Mr Russell extensively, apparently from his letter.
Alongside was a front-page editorial which began: “What is going on with our young people?” It then traversed details of its report of the week before, describing it as a “shocking situation.” The newspaper said it had gone to “great lengths” to ensure the schools had an opportunity to respond.
Without admitting error, it amended its original report – wherein it was claimed four students in the previous six weeks had taken their own lives. The editorial said only one of five young people who had taken their own lives in the past year was a current student.
The editorial said the paper did not know why the young people had taken their own lives and agreed it was only speculation that bullying was to blame. “Curiously reaction to our report was more negative than we imagined it would be.”
The paper printed five letters in the same edition, including one signed by 19 students of Paraparaumu College. Four were highly critical of the initial report, and the fifth was critical of some points while acknowledging some of the issues it raised.
On October 25, the Kapiti News editor, Simon Waters, responded to the board of Kapiti College. He defended the October 18 article and said he was satisfied the two women were genuine in their concerns. He did not believe the coverage was unbalanced.
To Mr Russell’s claim that he was asked only to explain the school’s position on bullying, the editor said this was not the recollection of the reporting staff “and indeed I fail to understand how that could be, given Mr Russell’s direct quotes in the college’s response story that specifically refer to suicides.”
He contested there were gross exaggerations and inaccuracies in the article and did not believe an apology was warranted. The paper had not set about to discredit the colleges, but he declined to apologise.
In his later response to the November 1 complaint from the Paraparaumu College Chair, Mrs Ordish (mistakenly calling her Sir and failing to change the date of October 25 from his previous response to Kapiti College), he said the newspaper’s “ongoing investigation” into Kapiti suicides had revealed a far more serious situation than first realised in terms of youth suicides. It had elected not to publish such detail and the paper was adopting a cautious and responsible approach.
It had also received “dozens more calls” from people alleging bullying at one or both colleges. Similarly, the paper had decided not to publish them unless they were relevant to the issue of the high number of suicides taking place.
The Paraparaumu College Board of Trustees formally complained to the Press Council about the article on November 29, 2006, and was joined by the Kapiti College Board of Trustees on December 12, 2006. The Press Council will consider the complaints together.
The Paraparaumu Board listed four specific areas of complaint: Accuracy/Comment and fact; corrections; children and young persons/photographs/headlines and captions, and; insignificant investigation of specific complaint from the board.
Accuracy and balance: The figures quoted in the article about suicides at the school were incorrect. Neither of the informants appeared to have attended Paraparaumu College and it would therefore be difficult to identify how they could have direct personal information relating to that college.
Corrections: The Paraparaumu Board of Trustees believed the October 25 editorial made some attempt to address the October 18 article, acknowledging in the body of the editorial there had been just one college-age suicide in recent months. But no reference was made to the fact it was not a Paraparaumu College student.
The Board of Trustees also challenged the newspaper’s view it had given the schools ample opportunity to respond. The issue of suicide was not the focus of the conversation, which was allegations by two students of bullying at the college. The implication, the Board of Trustees believed, was that the students had formerly attended Paraparaumu College. The published article identified the students, however, as former students of Kapiti College.
Children and young persons/photographs/headlines and captions: The Paraparaumu Board of Trustees was also concerned about the front-page photograph and heading, noting they had to potential to create adverse reactions among vulnerable people. The board believed the use of a photograph that contained no detail about its background was inappropriate and misleading.
Insignificant investigation of specific complaints from the Board: Paraparaumu board chair Mrs Ordish was critical that the newspaper’s letter of response to her board appeared to be the same as the one sent to Kapiti College. She noted the incorrect date and honorific.
Discussion of suicide in the media was not at issue. The objection from both colleges was the strong inference that recent youth suicides were linked to bullying in the schools.
The Kapiti College Chairman Mr Henry, in his December 12 letter to the Press Council, cited breaches of principles relating to accuracy, children and young people, comment and fact, headlines and captions and photographs and described the quality of journalism as reprehensible.
The college reiterated that when the principal was approached by the reporter, he was not asked to comment on the allegations that subsequently appeared in the newspaper.
The October 25 story was “nothing more than a cynical attempt to validate the earlier story.” It also misrepresented the facts when it suggested the college had met to discuss bullying. Assemblies were held to address student concerns about the inaccuracy and unfairness of the first story, and to let them know what steps the college was taking to seek a retraction and correction.
The Newspaper’s Response:
Mr Waters acknowledged the date and honorific errors in his response to the Kapiti College board and apologised.
Since the articles of October 18 and 25, he had spoken to representatives of Suicide Prevention New Zealand who had raised concerns about the dangerous nature of openly reporting on the subject of suicide. As a result of those discussions, he had undertaken to research and prepare a policy on reporting suicide for the company’s publications and had in the meantime instructed his staff not to actively pursue the “Kapiti Coast suicide issue” until he was satisfied continued reporting did not put people at risk or unless there was overwhelming public interest.
Accuracy and balance: He disputed that the newspaper’s reporting of the young women’s claims was incorrect. The comments accurately paraphrased what the young women had said, and they confirmed their remarks later.
The newspaper had made it clear the young women were former students of Kapiti College but that they were friends of the victims, some of whom were current or former students at both colleges. In the paper’s opinion, therefore, they were “uniquely placed” to comment on possible causative factors in the suicides and on alleged bullying at both colleges.
Both colleges were implicated in the young women’s comments and that gave the paper confidence that bullying may have played a part in the deaths of their friends.
At the time the two articles were published, the paper had been unable to confirm through the coroner the identities of the victims the young women spoke of. It took those claims at face value and out of respect for the families concerned, elected not to name the victims in any subsequent coverage. “Nor have we approached those families for comment. To do so, while it may help shed light on whether bullying was a causative factor, would simply be unethical in our opinion.”
The editor also confidentially provided names of six purported youth suicides and one by a Christian name, four of which he said had been confirmed through the Coroner.
Corrections: The newspaper disputed the colleges had not been given sufficient opportunity to respond. The reporter concerned strongly denied implying the two young women were from Paraparaumu College when he spoke to the assistant principal.
The question of suicide was clearly discussed as the article quoted the assistant principal directly on suicide.
Children and young persons/photographs/headlines and captions: The newspaper accepted the photograph should have been identified as a dramatisation, and it was an oversight not to have done so. But the editor said he did not believe it was unethical. The heading was an accurate reflection of the article.
The editor acknowledged suicide was highly complex and the paper “most probably” could have done better with its coverage. But the newspaper was not a large media organisation with vast resources able to investigate stories at length. Reporters handled a large volume of work each day fairly, accurately and ethically.
The newspaper realised that bullying alone was unlikely to force a person to take their own life, and the paper had since carried an article on other factors such as depression and low self-esteem, which had drawn praise.
Further Comment from Paraparaumu and Kapiti Colleges:
In further comments on behalf of the Paraparaumu College’s Board of Trustees, Mrs Ordish said the editor had said in his response that bullying “may” have played a part. If this was the case, more accurate investigation should have been undertaken rather than “sensationalise the issue based on flimsy comments from these two women.”
Four of the seven names of suicide victims provided by the editor were said to have attended Paraparaumu College. Mrs Ordish pointed out two had left in 2002, one in 2003 while the fourth had not attended Paraparaumu College but Kapiti College.
Kapiti College’s Mr Henry was highly critical of the editor’s assertion that the paper took the informants’ claims at “face value” for such a serious accusation
Of the three suicide victims alleged by the editor to be from Kapiti College, Mr Henry said none could be found of the school’s rolls for the years between 1999 and 2006. While they may have attended the school prior to 1999, it would be misleading and unfair to suggest any recent suicides could be blamed on what might have happened more than seven years previously.
Mr Henry drew attention to his board’s complaint under Principle 5 of the Council’s statements of principles which states: “Editors should have particular care and consideration for reporting on and about children and young people.” The newspaper’s subsequent realisation of the dangers of such reporting and its decision to have a policy on the issue also reinforced the substance of his board’s complaint.
He also said the editor’s explanation that what was published accurately reported what the young women said was specious.
The editor, by his claim that the paper had two people on record saying bullying was “at least one of perhaps several causative factors” when the actual article said bullying by teachers and students was responsible for youth suicides, appeared to acknowledge the inaccuracy of the article.
Mr Henry said the size of the media organisation was also irrelevant. Newspapers serving a small community can often have greater impact and a paper choosing to publish an article on youth suicide had a responsibility to be balanced and accurate regardless of resources.
Mr Henry said the editor had not answered his point that the October 25 article reported how Kapiti College had met to discuss bullying. It had, in fact, met to discuss the “devastating claims” that had appeared in the paper.
The Press Council believes the Kapiti News was justified in investigating the claims of the two young women and their allegations. Nevertheless, it is a subject which requires the utmost care and responsibility, particularly when youth suicides are involved. The Kapiti News did not meet the required standards of accuracy and balance, and insufficient regard was paid to the issue of children and young people.
Accuracy: The Council upholds the complaints on the grounds of accuracy. The October 18 article said bullying at both colleges “by both teachers and students” was responsible for a series of youth suicides, according to two former students of one of the colleges. The claims are unconditional and forthrightly stated, and can only mean students recently at the schools.
Yet the reference to teacher bullying is fleeting, and the details provided by the young women are vague. The distressing nature of suicide and the essentially private action it requires means the informants could not have been fully aware of all the facts. As subsequent investigations showed, all but one of the victims said to be from Paraparaumu College were former students who had left some years previously. Kapiti College was also able to rebut the alleged number of suicides there.
What the reporter said to the head of Kapiti College about the proposed story is in dispute, and the Press Council finds it difficult to adjudicate on such matters. But it seems strange neither Mr Russell nor Mr van Schooten denied the numbers of students who had allegedly killed themselves when they would surely have done so if they had been aware of the allegations – and as the colleges were able to do later.
The claims of the informants, therefore, cannot be sustained in terms of accuracy. Given their non-specific nature, it was the duty of the newspaper to check further and verify the claims relating to the number of deaths at the schools before publishing them. As subsequent inquiries have discovered, such information was available. While much of it may have been confidential or unlikely to be published, it would have allowed the newspaper to temper its original report and, at the very least, to be sure it was accurate.
It follows that if the article is inaccurate, the heading – while accurately reflecting what follows – must also be inaccurate.
The newspaper was also misleading in the October 25 article when it said Kapiti College had met to discuss bullying. The assembly was to discuss the newspaper’s coverage of the week before.
Balance: The Press Council also upholds the complaints of lack of balance. The newspaper believed it had provided balance by approaching the assistant principal and principal at the two colleges. But a subject as sensitive as suicide requires more than “he-said-she-said” comments from directly interested parties, or certainly more than what was published.
The newspaper had a duty to approach other sources, most particularly the Coroner and groups set up to prevent suicide. The story demanded balance and explanation from acknowledged reputable sources, and the newspaper’s reporters should have been aware of them. The Council is aware that such a code of practice for suicide reporting has been under development for some time through the Media Freedom Committee of the New Zealand Section of the Commonwealth Press Union, and the newspaper should have been aware of it.
The Council is pleased to see the newspaper developing its own code and subsequently becoming more directly involved with those groups who could have offered the necessary balance, but the fact remains the newspaper should have done so in the first instance.
The editor states that it would unethical to approach the parents of the young people who had committed suicide. Such an approach would certainly have required tact and acute sensitivity but, carried out properly and professionally, it would not have been unethical and might have provided very important information and potential balance, as he acknowledges.
Children and Young People: The complaints from both colleges that the article breached the Press Council’s principle on Children and Young People relating to editors taking care when reporting about children and young people are also upheld.
The newspaper has been unable to illustrate it had that principle in mind when it published the October 18 article and, if it had done so, it would not have published the article as it did. Its inaccuracies and lack of balance mean children and young people were poorly served.
However, the Council does not uphold the complaint about the separation of comment and fact. The newspaper made its views clear in its editorial and the news stories were clearly labelled as such.
The Press Council also rejects the suggestion that a small newspaper with fewer resources cannot carry out major investigations. In its editorial, the newspaper seemed ready to make a campaign of the issue, saying it would not “back off” in the face of criticism of its October 18 article, although it subsequently amended its form of coverage. On a major topic such as suicide, a newspaper needs to commit to all resources necessary to cover the issue responsibly because the risk of harm done by inadequate reporting is high. This responsibility particularly falls heavily on community papers with their greater penetration.
The colleges sought corrections from the newspaper, which it declined to do after receiving support for its stand, and further informants. A more conciliatory approach with the colleges, however, might have proved more fruitful in the long term.
The newspaper has acknowledged its photograph of a young woman on the front page should have carried a “dramatisation” explanation. While dramatic in itself, the Council does not believe its use in itself is unethical. A reasonable person would regard the photograph as posed for the purpose of illustrating a story. Still, the sensitivity about the picture as relayed by the Paraparaumu College Board of Trustees is a warning for newspapers of how such pictures can be regarded.
The Council acknowledges the workload of an editor who is responsible not just for a daily newspaper but also two community newspapers, particularly when the intended coverage of a sensitive issue would inevitably place a further heavy demand on his attention. But that in itself is no excuse and the Council must uphold the complaints on all major grounds.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson, Lynn Scott and John McClintock.