LAURA SMYTHE AGAINST STUFF
Case Number: 3453
Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2023
Decision: Not Upheld
Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Ruling Categories: Behaviour of Journalists
- Laura Smythe complained that a Stuff news story based on information she supplied to their news tip line and in a subsequent brief interview breached Media Council Principles (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, (2) Privacy and (12) Corrections. The complaint is not upheld.
- Stuff published an article on 29 March2023, headlined ‘Like a mob’: Travellers complain of ‘feral’ crowds at New Zealand airports.
- The article reported travellers were complaining of hours-long waits in arrivals halls as passengers on overseas flights waited to be cleared through biosecurity. The complainant’s comments about her experience arriving at Auckland Airport were quoted at the top of the story where she said “it was madness” from the baggage carousel to the biosecurity screening area with an incredibly long queue from one end of the arrivals hall to the other. Ms Smythe was also reported as saying there was no clear explanation for the unusually long queue and there was no communication except a repeated announcement that “we’re experiencing delays."
- Laura Smythe complained Stuff had committed privacy and ethical breaches. The story was triggered when she sent a news tip to Stuff reporting her experience on arriving at Auckland Airport on 27 March. “I sent in a tip for a journalist to investigate and shed some light on the challenges being faced at our largest airport.”
- She said a subsequent call from a reporter was a very informal conversation in which the reporter did not formally identify herself or her purpose.
- “I ended the quick call with a feeling that I was being called as a simple follow-up and certainly wouldn’t see any outcomes that I had hoped.” Ms Smythe assumed that if the reporter investigated and wrote an article, she would call back to confirm a quote.
- She was therefore astonished when a friend emailed from Chicago regarding an “aggressive article” quoting her on the front page of the Stuff website. This was followed by texts from others.
- She called the reporter to express her confusion and disbelief that her name had been published on an international media website. The reporter said her comments were always “on the record” and that her editor had advised it was not possible to remove her name from the story.
- In a series of text messages to Stuff she said she did not consent to her name, details, quotes or video to be published on-line. She was concerned about her security, privacy and the possibility that the story could jeopardise a professional relationship with the airport.
- Eventually, on 31 March – two days after the article was first posted – Stuff agreed to remove her surname from the article.
- “Ultimately, I feel my privacy was breached and while the article was amended to remove the last name, the article was live on an international platform for four days and arguably Stuff was just stalling me until the article was deemed ‘old news’.”
- Key points in Ms Smythe’s complaint were:
- The article included quotes that “I don’t believe I said.”
- Stuff uploaded a video that she had not approved to be shared.
- The reporter incorrectly guessed her name from her email address.
- She did not consent to sharing any of her information and that information was not updated or amended on her request.
- There were no attempts to resolve her concerns or act in good faith. Instead, she felt bullied.
- Her phone conversation was recorded without her knowledge.
- Stuff said it stood by the quotes used in the story. The reporter recorded the interview with Ms Smythe and transcribed the conversation they had.
- The video had been emailed to email@example.com. Members of the public regularly share videos for use in news articles and it is implied in the sharing that the video would be used.
- Ms Smythe’s surname was removed later at her request, but she never once said the surname used was incorrect.
- .“We accept that the reporter should have asked for her to spell her correct name during the interview. In none of her correspondence did Ms Smythe tell Stuff her name was wrong. Stuff only became aware of this fact through the Media Council complaint.”
- The complainant emailed Stuff, agreed to be interviewed and then gave the interview “so it is logical to follow that the conversation is on the record and able to be reported.”
- The reporter identified herself as a Stuff journalist, and said she was calling about her experience at the airport off the back of Ms Smythe’s email. The reporter also mentioned she would contact the airport for comment, so it was clear she intended to write a story. At no point did Ms Smythe say she did not want to be named or quoted in the story, or that the information was only background.
- Stuff said if Ms Smythe had mentioned at any point that she did not want to be named, the reporter would have agreed not to name her or declined to use the information in the story.
- Stuff said the story was amended twice at her request, first to remove her flight location and second, when there was a further complaint about her privacy concerns, her surname was also removed as a gesture of good faith, “not because we believe we acted incorrectly.”
- Stuff strongly rejected any suggestion of bullying or that it made no attempts to resolve her concerns. Several attempts were made to find out what the issue was and to work together to find a suitable outcome.
- Stuff said that when the formal complaint came through at 1.52pm on Thursday 30 March, it responded within an hour to say it was looking into the situation and consulted with the reporter. It responded once more at 4.18pm, outlining its process for the removal of a name and as a gesture of good faith removed reference to the flight location.
- Stuff received a longer complaint at 9.05pm the same day in which Ms Smythe claimed she was “stonewalled and bullied.”
- At 8.05am on 31 March, Stuff responded saying it had taken her concerns into consideration and had removed her surname from the article as requested. As there was no further communication from her Stuff believed the issue had been resolved.
- Stuff added that journalists often record interviews to ensure they are reported accurately. Legally journalists do not need the consent of interviewees to record interviews.
- Stuff said the story was accurate, fair and balanced. It was unclear why this Media Council Principle had been cited.
- .It was also not in breach of Principle (12) Corrections. The story was not inaccurate. However, amendments were made in consideration of the complaint and as a gesture of good faith.
- Stuff also said it had not breached Media Council Principle (2) Privacy. Ms Smythe emailed Stuff’s news tips address, agreed to be interviewed by a journalist and then spoke freely in that interview. At no point did she ask not to be quoted or named or for any part of the conversation to be off the record. The story did not contain personal information as her last name, while incorrect, was removed. The story simply reported her experience of queues at the airport.
Further comment from the complainant
- In response to Stuff’s comments Ms Smythe said that “Consent is not something that should be strongly implied.” The media have a duty of care to ensure this information is understood. She said she did not agree to have her call “which was not an interview” recorded, did not agree to share her video with an international news outlet and “I did not correct my name as it is evidence that it was guessed from my email address, without my consent.”
- “The responsibility is on the reporter to be accurate, to check and double-check and confirm with the source for clarification.”
- Referring to journalistic integrity, ethics, fairness and balance, Ms Smythe believed that should ensure an interviewee is made aware that an article might be based on a tip the interviewee provided.
- Extra care should be given to people who rarely, or never, deal with the media. ”Dealing with the media is a daunting experience and these conversations should be held transparently, professionally and in good faith.”
- She said she would never have sent the video in if she thought it was going to be used and publishing “showed no respect for my child (a vulnerable person) who is in the video.”
- When she raised her complaint, she was met with delays, requests for additional information and a lack of priority.
- Ms Smythe said that while news outlets protect the identity of sources who request anonymity, she was never offered this option. She did not realise she needed to specify that she did not want her name used or what was meant by “information or background only”.
- “I strongly believe Stuff has a duty of care to the public when engaging with them, a code of ethics to adhere to, and a responsibility to quality, journalistic integrity. At every step of this engagement, they have failed to ensure I understood my commitments, the process, or the implications.”
- She said Stuff had shown a lack of care and consideration for her personal information.
- Before considering this matter, the Media Council apologises to Ms Smythe for the delayed handling of her complaint.
- The Council also has sympathy with Ms Smythe for what seems to have been a troubling encounter with the news media, largely because it was not made clear to her how information she supplied would be used in a story.
- The Council had some difficulty in dealing with this complaint because so much of it related to misunderstandings and a lack of clear communication right from the start.
- Ms Smythe saw what she thought was a notable, and probably newsworthy, problem when she arrived at the airport and found herself among hundreds of other passengers held up for hours in a long queue to get through biosecurity. Clearly, she saw this as a matter of wider interest and sent a succinct note and short video to Stuff’s news tips email address.
- Like any other media organisation Stuff welcomes such tips from the public as they are a good source of news stories, and it is surprising that Ms Smythe did not expect her tip to trigger the story which followed. There was nothing in her note to suggest she did not want her name used or that a story reporting her views might be problematic. She was, after all, passing on an experience shared with many hundreds of passengers at the airport that night.
- A Stuff reporter made contact and arranged to call her for a “quick chat.” This flippant phrase left room for misunderstanding. The reporter no doubt thought that was probably all that would be needed to confirm Ms Smythe’s email comments about the airport queue, while Ms Smythe had no idea that the reporter’s “quick chat” effectively amounted to an interview.
- The reporter unfortunately made another basic error. She did not check Ms Smythe’s name or ask her to spell it. As well as making sure she got it right, it would also have indicated that the reporter wanted to use Ms Smythe’s name in the story and given Ms Smythe the opportunity to say no.
- The problems with this story stem from there. It highlights the need for reporters and editors to show care in all their communications and to explain what they are doing, particularly with people who have no experience of dealing with the media. Cryptic emails and text messages can leave so much room for misunderstanding.
- Stuff acknowledged its reporter’s mistakes in handling this story and the Council believes it acted promptly to address Ms Smythe’s concerns by removing details from the article including her incorrect surname. The Council also has no information to show how she was misquoted.
- The Council believes that people who send material to news tip lines implicitly accept that the information they volunteer is likely to be used. In this case there was no disclosure of personal or private information and clearly the frustration caused by big queues at the airport was a matter of high public interest. However, this particular complainant was clearly surprised that the material she supplied was used and it’s conceivable that others unfamiliar with media practices might feel the same. Stuff and other media organisations that run news tip functions might consider indicating how images and information supplied might be used. In this instance a reporter got back to Ms Smythe before writing her story. This is as it should be but perhaps the reporter should have asked for permission to use the video, rather than assume it was available for posting on-line.
- While it has some concerns, as outlined above, the Council does not believe Stuff’s actions amounted to a breach of Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance or Principle (12) Corrections.
- It is very different to the Media Council’s Principle (2) Privacy, which sets out ethical requirements for journalists as they do their work and the Council does not believe information contained in the Stuff story breached that principle.
- Decision: The complaint is not upheld.
Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (chair), Hank Schouten, Rosemary Barraclough, Scott Inglis, Jo Cribb, Alison Thom, Judi Jones.