M AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2938

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld with Dissent

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Behaviour of Journalists
Children and Young People
Privacy

Overview

[1] This complaint does not involve a publication, rather it is in regard to the conduct of a journalist in contacting the complainant’s son following a car crash. The complaint falls to be decided under Media Council Principle 2: Privacy and Principle 3: Children and Young People. It also engages the Media Council role in maintaining the press in accordance with the highest professional standards. The complaint is not upheld by a majority of Council members 7:3.

Background

[2] As the Media Council understands it, an allegedly stolen car carrying eight teenagers crashed into a fence and rolled. Seven young people were injured, one of them critically. Three helicopters were involved in assisting the injured and a portion of State Highway 1 south of Christchurch was closed for many hours as a result. There had been an earlier police pursuit, which had been abandoned due to the nature of the driving.

The Complaint

[3] The complainant’s 16-year-old son was one of the injured. A few days after the incident a reporter from Stuff contacted the complainant’s son, who was still in hospital, on Facebook messenger, asking if he wished to make any comment. This caused the complainant’s son a lot of anxiety and in her view, as the family had requested privacy, her son ought never to have been approached. She rejects the journalist’s explanation to her that, while sometimes journalists are informed that families wish privacy, there are occasions when they do actually want to talk. Overall, the complainant queries whether this behaviour is in accordance with the standards of journalism expected in New Zealand today.

The Response

[4] The Stuff Editor in Chief, Newsrooms provided a comprehensive response to the Media Council, which is substantially the same as responses Stuff had made to the complainant directly. She notes that the complaint centres on the practice of journalism and how journalists go about their job. She outlines how Stuff approaches stories of this nature and how, in her view, they deal with young people with sensitivity and care. She stresses that while Stuff did contact the complainant’s son, he did not respond to their contact, nor did Stuff write a story identifying, or quoting, him.

[5] There was a great deal of public interest in this story and the crash generated a number of articles. In one of these it was noted that six of the eight people in the car had requested privacy. The reporter, as is routine (and being unaware of which of the eight people had requested privacy) contacted those in the crash, their friends and others involved in the incident seeking more detail and offering the chance to talk with him.

[6] Stuff’s policy is to “do the journalism – reach out to people involved and see if they want to talk to us”. Sometimes organisations try to block reporters from talking to people involved in stories or incidents and some people and organisations have teams of communication experts attempting to manage the story. On many occasions Stuff has subsequently discovered that people have been willing to talk, despite statements otherwise. Stuff’s position is that fair and balanced reporting requires giving those involved in stories the opportunity to talk.

[7] The reporter in this instance used a number of tools to identify and contact those involved in the crash. The complainant’s son’s Facebook account was open to anyone wishing to contact him. The message sent to those involved read:

Hi …, I’m a journalist with Stuff. Sorry to contact you at what must be a difficult time. I’m hoping to talk to you about the … crash. If you feel comfortable doing so, you can contact me … Kind regards, …

When the reporter received no response, or a response of no thank you, he made no further contact.

[8] In relation to contacting minors, the Editor in Chief, notes that, in addition to being bound the Media Council Principles, Stuff has a Code of Ethics that spells out that care must be taken when approaching minors. This states:

[Journalists] will …Take particular care when contacting minors as part of newsgathering to make clear the intention of the contact, what you will do with any information provided, and involve a consenting adult.

Where the interview may be sensitive, Stuff’s policy is to ask to discuss the interview (and get permission) from a parent or guardian [an example of this being achieved in practice was provided]. In this instance, the reporter simply contacted the complainant’s son. No further contact was made. Had he wished to take up the opportunity to talk, the reporter would have asked to speak to his parents.

[9] With regard to the specific complaint that contact was made even though a request for privacy had been made, the Editor in Chief notes that at the time the journalist contacted the complainant’s son only six of the eight families involved had requested privacy and Stuff had no idea who those families were. Stuff’s actions were simply the basics of journalism “inviting someone involved in a high profile incident to contact us”. The Editor in Chief provided the Media Council with a timeline, which supports the contention that when the journalist reached out to people involved in the crash, he did not know who had sought privacy.

[10] In any event, the Editor in Chief does not consider that any privacy has actually been breached in this case, given the complainant’s son has a public Facebook page, he did not respond to the reporter and no story was written.


[11] Overall, the Editor in Chief considers that Stuff’s approach was in the public interest in light of the high profile nature of the crash and events which followed it. The reporter concerned dealt with those involved in the crash in a sensitive and low-key manner and acted with utmost professionalism.

The Decision

Decision

[12] In order to address this complaint it is necessary to frame it by reference to the relevant Media Council principles, the content of which guide us in determining if there has been any breach. The Media Council considers that two are relevant: Media Council Principle 2: Privacy, which relevantly states:

Everyone is normally entitled to privacy of person, space and personal information, and these rights should be respected by publications. Nevertheless the right of privacy should not interfere with publication of significant matters of public record or public interest … Those suffering from trauma or grief call for special consideration.

And Principle 3: Children and Young People:

In cases involving children and young people editors must demonstrate an exceptional degree of public interest to override the interests of the child or young person.

Given this complaint does not involve a specific publication, but focuses on the conduct of a journalist, the complaint also engages the Media Council’s concern, outlined in the Preamble to its Principles, in maintaining the press in accordance with the highest professional standards.

[13] The Media Council accepts that it is standard journalistic practice to contact people involved in an incident to enquire whether they are willing to talk. It is a sad aspect of terrible events that those involved can feel the subject of unwanted attention from the media, but this does not mean that it is necessarily a breach of privacy for a person to be contacted.

[14] The question that confronts us in this instance is whether it is acceptable journalistic practice for a reporter to contact a young person who has been involved in a serious car crash and was in hospital with very serious injuries.

[15] The Media Council considers that, while journalists need to ensure they use extra care and discretion when contacting children and young people who have been involved in serious incidents such as this, a prohibition on contact is neither necessary or desirable. The Media Council has great sympathy for the complainant, her son and their family for the very distressing situation they are in, however, it has concluded that the journalist’s contact in this case did not breach the son’s privacy, nor did it breach the professional standards expected of journalists. In reaching this conclusion the Council takes into account the fact that, although the journalist had been told that six of the eight young people in hospital had requested privacy, he did not know whether the complainant’s son was one of those. The Council also takes into account the substantial degree of public interest in the factors that lead to the car crash and its aftermath, that the young person in question was towards the upper end of the age range protected by the principle and that the contact was initiated in a polite and low-key way via the son’s publicly accessible Facebook page.

The complaint was not upheld by a majority of Council members.

Dissent

Jo Cribb, Marie Shroff and Hank Schouten dissented from the majority decision and would have upheld the complaint. The dissenters accept that there was a substantial degree of public interest in this story, and also accept that the contact by the journalist was low-key. However, they were not persuaded that there was such an exceptional degree of public interest that justified a direct contact with the complainant’s son. This was particularly so where of the eight young people involved, at the time the enquiry was made it was known to Stuff that three quarters of them had already requested privacy. The complainant’s son was a young person, injured, vulnerable and deserving of privacy. While it is common practice for journalists to make enquiries in an effort to obtain factual information, journalists also need to ensure they use extra care and discretion where children and young people are involved. We believe that more care and diligence could have been taken by the journalist in contacting people for comment in this case; it would have been more appropriate to limit the people contacted to the parents or guardians of those involved.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Raynor Asher, Liz Brown, Rosemary Barraclough, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

Jonathan MacKenzie took no part in the consideration of this complaint.