LILY KAY ROSS, DAVID NICKLES AND MONIQUE MULHOLLAND AGAINST OTAGO DAILY TIMES

Case Number: 2828

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Otago Daily Times

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Conflict of Interest
Headlines and Captions
Privacy
Unfair Coverage

Overview

[1] Lily Kay Ross, David Nickles and Monique Mulholland have together complained about anOtago Daily Times story headlined University criticises TVNZ rape reporting published on June 11, 2019.

[2] The article covers the University of Otago’s response to a TVNZ Sunday story two days earlier about sexual misconduct at New Zealand universities, focusing on three cases of alleged rape at Otago.

[3] Sunday spoke to Olivia Montgomery; a woman who chose not to be identified but referred to as Michaela; and a third woman who approached theSunday reporter during her investigation. Both Montgomery and Michaela spoke to theODT for its story. Complainant Lily Kay Ross featured in the Sunday story as a PhD student commissioned by Otago University to help it develop its sexual misconduct policy.

[4] The Sunday story refers to internal university emails released under the Official Information Act that Michaela says shows they were more concerned about the university’s reputation than her welfare and safety.

The Complaint

[5] The complainants have made a wide-ranging complaint under Principles 1 (Accuracy, Fairness and Balance); 2 (Privacy); 4 (Comment and Fact); 6 (Headlines and Captions); and 10 (Conflicts of Interest).

[6] One of the complainants’ main concerns is the story’s reliance on a statement from Otago University and the similarity between the statement and the article. Their complaint highlights sections from the article alongside sections from the Otago University statement.

[7] They say much of the article “appears to be university PR passed off as ODT reporting” and what looks like an op-ed from the university’s communications office has been “adapted by [the reporter] for use in the ODT”.

[8] They refer to several paragraphs and to the headline. The university statement is headlined “University criticises accuracy ofSunday programme” and the ODT headline is “University

criticises TVNZ rape reporting”. The complainants call that “strikingly similar… in tone, language and content”. They say it raises fairness and balance issues under Principle 1 and issues around theODT’s independence under Principle 10.

[9] A significant part of their complaint is aimed at this paragraph:

They [the university emails] were taken out of context, and the idea the university was more concerned about its reputation might potentially deter students from complaining.

[10] Mulholland, Nickles and Ross say the assertion lacks evidence and represents university’s claims as fact. They point out that the previous paragraph quotes the university’s statement but this paragraph lacks a qualifier, presenting opinion as fact.

[11] They also say the ODT fails to give the counter to that argument, that the university’s policies and historic treatment of sexual assault claims is the main deterrent to victims coming forward.

[12] Similarly, another paragraph further down the story is also without evidence and the attribution coming at the end “functions to obfuscate the sources of the statement”:

The university had a comprehensive, student-centred approach to reports of sexual assault, where confidentiality was paramount, the university said.

[13] The paragraph immediately following also lacks attribution and they raise the same issue as in paragraph 10 of this ruling.

[14] Finally, they are concerned about Michaela’s privacy, given she was contacted repeatedly by the reporter on June 10. While her name had been withheld and her face partially hidden by TVNZ, the reporter had identified her and contacted her seven times that day. They provide a screenshot of Michaela’s phone log and say she was concerned for her safety.

The Response

[15] On behalf of the ODT, editor Barry Stewart strongly disagrees with the complaint and does not accept claims of bias towards Otago University.

[16] Stewart says the reporter has paraphrased part of the university’s statement for her story, which is standard practice in any journalism. The suggestion she is trying to present comment as fact is “a slight” on her. Paragraph two clearly states the article is relying on a University statement to give its side of the story and that its side is critical ofTVNZ.

[17] “Further references are made in the article to ‘the statement said’ and the ‘university said’ leaving, in our opinion, no doubt as to who was making the claims.”

[18] Stewart says the story was a response to the TVNZ programme. While it led with the university’s reaction it also detailed the claims made bySunday, spoke to the Sunday Executive Producer and two of the alleged victims. TheODT has carried previous stories about issues of rape on campus.

[19] “Rather than showing any bias, the ODT simply put both sides of the argument before our readers,” Stewart says.

[20] Stewart says the headlines’ similarity is a coincidence. The sub who headlined theODT story had not seen the statement and it accurately reflects the story.

[21] On the question of Michaela’s privacy, he apologises if she felt hounded and accepts this is a traumatic matter for those involved. He says the reporter recognised her from the TV programme, having interviewed her before for a story on Students Against Sexual Violence. The reporter spoke to her twice in the morning and once in the afternoon, initially asking for the emails provided toTVNZ. Later in the afternoon, after the university released its statement, she went back for comment.

[22] Three other calls went unanswered. “At no stage throughout the day did Michaela ask [the reporter] not to contact her. It is worth noting she also provided a statement to theODT to be used in the article”.

[23] Michaela did say in the final message of the day – around 8pm – that she had not appreciated being contacted by theODT. The reporter apologised at the time.

[24] At no time did the ODT identify her, he says.

The Decision

[25] The similarity between the words in the statement and those in the article is unsurprising. Indeed, anyone giving comment to media would hope to see those comments reported in much the same language and tone as they had offered them.

[26] While the current reliance of institutions and public sector agencies on press releases rather than interviews does discourage openness and exposes media (and the institutions themselves) to the kind of scepticism expressed by the complainants, it is perfectly reasonable for journalists to use such releases in their reporting.

[27] The article’s angle is the university’s response to the claims aired on Sunday. That is a legitimate and common angle, especially for a local paper. The story accurately reports the university’s position. If theODT had only reported the university’s position or the statement had made up the vast bulk of the story that would have fallen short of our principles. The Council has upheld complaints of that nature in the past, when statements are run almost verbatim. But in this case the ODT spoke to three other sources who disagreed with the university and stood by theSunday story, providing balance,

[28] News stories on contested events always contain differing opinions from the parties involved, but reporting those conflicting opinions in what is clearly labelled a news story in no way confuses the line between fact and opinion.

[29] The complainants’ unease about the reporting of the university’s opinion is largely due to their belief it’s not clear what is fact and what is opinion. However the Council does not believe most readers would share their concerns or confusion over which statements were attributed to Otago University.

[30] The concerns stem from paragraphs 6-12 of the article. But the first of these paragraphs refers to the statement, the third attributes the Vice Chancellor, the fourth and fifth quote her and the 11th again attributes the claim to the university. Seen as a whole, it is clear this part of the article is laying out the university’s point of view. Paragraphs seven and 12 lack attribution, but they are what is called ‘reported speech’ and in this context are clearly part of the university’s comments.

[31] Another example of reported speech can be seen immediately after this section.Sunday Executive Producer Jane Skinner is quoted in paragraph 13 and paragraph 14 is clearly a continuation of her comments, even though there is no specific attribution.

[32] The complainants raise further issues with the reportage of the university’s emails (eg “straw man arguments”), but they draw us into the rights and wrongs of the university’s statement and that is beyond our remit. Suffice to say the university has a right to express a view, the article reports those views accurately and readers can decide who to believe.

[33] The headline accurately conveys the substance of the article. We have no reason to doubt theODT’s claim the similarity to the statement’s headline is coincidental; the words used are common, factual and do not bias readers towards the university. It – and the comments taken from the statement – in no way suggest theODT lacks independence on this issue.

[34] The privacy complaint raises the fraught issue of how reporters deal with victims of sexual violence. As our principles state, victims must always be treated with “special consideration”.

[35] In this case Michaela is said to have felt unsafe, which will please no-one. TheODT has apologised in its response.

[36] However the Council does not believe the reporter acted inappropriately. Michaela had spoken toTVNZ about her story and had been interviewed by this reporter before on the issue of sexual violence. It was reasonable for the reporter to seek an interview. More, to have attempted to write the story without offering the victim at the centre of the claims a voice would have demeaned and patronised her and lacked balance.

[37] If Michaela had said she did not want to talk and the reporter had kept calling or her personal information was disclosed, the Council would be likely to look on this differently. But, by theODT’s account, the reporter was seeking the documentary evidence to substantiate Michaela’s claims about the university’s concern for its reputation and then offering Michaela a right of reply to the university. Those requests gave her a voice (if she wanted it) to speak against the comments being made by a powerful institution.

[38] For all the reasons discussed the complaint under Principles 1, 2, 4, 6 and 10 is not upheld.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jonathan MacKenzie, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

Ben France-Hudson took no part in the consideration of this complaint.

Rosemary Barraclough and Hank Schouten stood down to maintain a public member majority.