Case Number: 2737

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2018

Decision: Upheld with Dissent

Publication: Otago Daily Times

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Headlines and Captions
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge


Katharine Cresswell Riol complained that an article published in the Otago Daily Times breached Principle 1, Accuracy Fairness and Balance, and Principle 6, Headlines and Captions.


The Otago Daily Times published a story on October 9 headlined ‘Dunedin riders sick of anti-cyclist vitriol’, which led with the news that a video of a group of cyclists riding on a main road, not the adjacent cycleway, had sparked hundreds of comments on social media, many of them castigating cyclists as a group.

The story quoted the complainant, Ms Cresswell Riol, a member of a cycling advocacy organisation called Critical Mass Dunedin. Critical Mass is an international movement started in San Francisco to “reclaim public space and increase the visibility of cyclists”.

The complainant said she had recently been accosted by a “really threatening” driver as she moved between the left and right hand sides of a separated cycleway. The motorist had apparently failed to understand that cyclists had to cross the highway at that point to transfer between cycleway sections.

The story said Ms Cresswell Riol believed that while many drivers were considerate, anti-cyclist sentiment could be vitriolic and threatening, especially on social media. She said Dunedin’s cycleways were far from ideal, citing the small window afforded to cyclists by traffic light phasing to cross intersections and their disjointed nature.

Ms Cresswell Riol suggested Dunedin should follow Auckland’s lead where the council will soon begin consultation on lowering the inner city speed limit to 30kph.

Another Critical Mass participant Geoff Wigley called for mutual respect on the roads.

NZ Transport Agency senior manager Simon Underwood said the agency was completing post-construction audits on the one-way system’s separated cycle lanes to identify any issues.

The Complaint

Ms Cresswell Riol complained the article misrepresented an interview she and Critical Mass participant Geoff Wigley gave to the ODT. The pair understood the article would be on Critical Mass Dunedin and the city’s new cycleways.

The headline of the story however focused on the maliciousness of anti-cyclists, even using quotation marks around the world “vitriol”, which suggested one of them had used the word, which they had not.

She said the first two paragraphs of the story gave the false impression that the interview had been based on the video clip of cyclists riding on Portobello Road, when it was in fact discussed only briefly.

The complainant believed she and Mr Wigley had been misled by the ODT reporter over the intent of the article and instead of the interview being used constructively as was their objective, their words had been “exploited to perpetuate the injurious car versus bicycle debate”.

She said this form of sensationalism exacerbates tensions between cyclists and motorists and puts the more vulnerable cyclists at risk of abuse. For members of Critical Mass Dunedin to have been associated with this is “reprehensible”, she said.

The Response

ODT editor Barry Stewart defended his newspaper’s story. The angle taken by the reporter after the interview with Critical Mass Dunedin participants was legitimate given that the issues were topical in the news at the time.

He explained that interviews that were ostensibly on one topic often morph into something else, especially if a related matter is topical at the time and the interviewee comments on that issue.

He said he was satisfied the reporter did not mislead the interviewees given that journalists never enter an interview with a set idea of what is going to be said.

The editor acknowledged that the world “vitriol” was not said by the complainant, and the online heading had been changed. The print version of the story was headlined “Riders say SH1 cycleways far from ideal”.

He pointed out that the article did cover the issues Critical Mass Dunedin wanted to cover and he was sorry the complainant saw it in a negative light. The way a story is perceived is up to the reader, he said.

The Discussion

The car versus bicycle issue has been controversial for years: outrage from motorists at the actions of some cyclists who ignore traffic signals and cause congestion rivals that of cyclists who are frequently threatened and abused by motorists. With the introduction of more cycleways in inner-city areas encouraging more cyclists onto the roads, the controversy shows little sign of abating.

Despite the concerns of the complainant that reporting on incidents such as the social media fallout over the Portobello Road video only exacerbate tensions between the two factions, the incident was topical, and theOtago Daily Times reporter was within his rights to include it in his story. He was not obliged to discuss the angle of his story with the interviewees, however aggrieved they may feel.

The use of the word vitriol, which was used in the online headline, was not a quote from either of the interviewees, a point acknowledged by the editor. It is not uncommon however for a reporter to sum up a point in his own words. While Ms Cresswell Riol complained about the word being used in quotation marks in the original headline, she did not raise it in the context of the article.

The complaint under Principle 1 is not upheld.

The complaint under Principle 6 concerning the original headline is a different matter. Ms Cresswell Riol described the headline as sensationalist and said it incited antagonism between cyclists and drivers. Neither she nor her fellow Critical Mass participant had used the word ‘vitriol’ in the interview, nor had they said they were ‘tired of Dunedin drivers’ behaviour’. TheODT editor Barry Stewart acknowledged the word vitriol had not been said by either of the interviewees and had the quotation marks removed in the online headline; he pointed out that the print story ran the much more sober headline, “Riders say SH1 cycleways far from ideal”.

Given that the words in the online headline were clearly intended to represent the views of the interviewees, and didn’t, the headline was in breach of Principle 6, which states “Headlines, sub-headings, and captions should accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to cover”. We note the editor’s efforts to correct this but if the interviewees did not make the statement, it is still a breach of the principle. The complaint under Principle 6 is upheld.

Tim Watkin dissented from this decision and would not have upheld the complaint.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.


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