MARC WENDELBORN AGAINST RNZ

Case Number: 2943

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Radio NZ

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Children and Young People
Conflict of Interest
Discrimination
Schools, Identification of
Social Media
Unfair Coverage

Overview

On May 29, 2020 RNZ published a story online “Race relations commissioner speaks out over student’s blackface selfie”. The story outlined how New Zealand's Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon wanted an Auckland high school to apologise and educate a student who wore black face.

On June 2, 2020, RNZ published a story online “Auckland teen leaves school after blackface selfie investigation”. The story outlined how a student who had posed in blackface and shared the image on social media had left Auckland's Westlake Girls High School.

Mr Wendelborn complains that the story breaches Media Council principles:

Principle 1 - Accuracy fairness and balance

Principle 3 – Children and Young People

Principle 7 - Discrimination and Diversity

Principle 10 - Conflicts of Interest

The Articles

The May 29 story said Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon wanted an unnamed all girl school in Auckland to apologise after a student sent a blackface selfie, with a caption including the n-word, to friends over Snapchat during lockdown.

The story said the image had been shared widely online and caused outrage with many social media users, who had called on the school to take a stand against racism. Foon was quoted as saying he was disappointed and expected the school, the girl and her parents to learn about the impact and harm caused by her actions.

The June 2 story said the student who posed in blackface had left Auckland's Westlake Girls High School.

The story noted the image had been shared the same day George Floyd was killed in the US by white police officers, and said his death had sparked widespread protest action and civil unrest across the US, and solidarity marches in New Zealand.

Westlake Girls High said the girl had chosen to leave the school after staff spoke with her, and her parents. A spokesperson said the multi-cultural school did not condone racist behaviour.

The story said school had been subject to a large amount of social media commentary, especially for a perceived lack of action because it had chosen not to publicly comment while it worked on the issue.


The Complaint

Mr Wendelborn says Principle 1 is breached as the articles are not fair, balanced or accurate. He asks “where does it say in these articles that comment was requested of the student or her family, or the outcome of those requests. Was the right of reply sought?

He says the article conflates “shared’ with “sent” regarding the image, and he questions who was responsible for the “sharing’’. He says the article misrepresented the facts by implying that the student “personally and intentionally’’ sent the image on the day that George Floyd was killed.

He says Principle 3 is breached as the student is a young person, and he questions whether there is an exceptional degree of public interest that overrides the young person’s welfare.

He says Principle 7 is breached as the stories are gratuitous reporting of race, gender and age and he questions whether they are ‘in the public interest’.

He says Principle 10 is breached as there is a conflict of interest, as RNZ is a state owned broadcaster and Meng Foon, the office of the Human Rights Commissioner, the Ministry of Education and the school are all government funded. He says they have collectively bullied the girl. He questions - “Are the parents of the student government funded?”

The Response

For RNZ, George Bignell said RNZ stood by its response to Mr Wendelborn.

That response stated:

RNZ could not agree that the article was misleading. The chronology was clearly set out – the girl sent a ‘selfie’ over Snapchat and then it was shared.

The reporting was clearly in the public interest. Sending a blackface selfie with a caption including the n-word to friends over Snapchat was clearly a racist action, and given its sharing on social media, could not be ignored.

RNZ failed to see the connection between public funding and a conflict of interest. Under the Radio New Zealand Act 1990, RNZ has complete editorial independence from its shareholding ministers and funders. The reporting could be viewed as the opposite of a conflict of interest, given that RNZ “exposed a wrongdoing associated with another publicly funded body”.

The age of the student was “of no moment” to the overall focus of the first story which focussed on Meng Foon’s comments, Mr Bignell said. The student was not identified in the story, and even if she was identified to a small group of friends and family, it was likely the social media publication of her photo and caption had already identified her to that group.

It was reasonable for the RNZ to note that the sharing of the image coincided with George Floyd’s death given that ‘‘two things occurred around the same time … related to the same overall issue of racism’’.

RNZ rejected the notion that it should have sought comment from the student. The comment from the girl’s school provided further perspective, and the girl was not identified.

If she had been identified, RNZ would have sought comment.

Mr Bignell’s submission to the Media Council noted that Mr Wendelborn found the RNZ response to him unsatisfactory, but it was difficult to establish why.

Mr Bignell said there seemed to be some misunderstanding on Mr Wendelborn’s part around the sending and sharing of the selfie – the stories were clear that the student sent the selfie and caption to friends on Snapchat, and the image was then somehow shared beyond that group.

Mr Bignell says Mr Wendelborn has made a number of inferences from the latter distribution of the selfie – RNZ has pointed out that those implications are not made in the stories.

Mr Wendelborn’s final comment

Mr Wendelborn reiterated the essence of his original complaint. He also stated:
“Holding truth to power is the supposed ideal of journalism. RNZ and other media have a lot of power, and in this case, while perhaps being factually correct, RNZ has not reported the truth.’’

The Decision


Analysis

Re Principle 1 – Mr Wendelborn says the articles are not fair, balanced or accurate. He asks whether comment was sought from the student or her family.

Not naming a person in a story does not exempt a media outlet from seeking comment from them. However on this occasion, the public interest and balancing comment sought for and provided by the school – which initially chose to not comment – provides sufficient balance from the student’s perspective.

Mr Wendelborn also questioned the appropriateness of the second story mentioning that the photo was shared on the day of George Floyd’s death. The Media Council considers that this was an appropriate reference given the issues of race that hover over both incidents

Mr Wendelborn makes reference to the articles being factually correct, but not “the truth’’. The Media Council’s view is that the articles do not breach Principle 1.

Re Principle 3 - Mr Wendelborn questions whether the stories met the test of justification because an exceptional degree of public interest overrode a young person’s welfare.

The Media Council believes that the public interest in this young person’s behaviour warranted reporting of the incident. While the experience has no doubt been extraordinarily difficult for the young person, the Media Council believes they – and others - will have learned from the experience.

Re Principle 7 – Mr Wendelborn says the stories are gratuitous reporting of race, gender and age and he questions whether they are ‘in the public interest’.

The Media Council considers that the stories are in the public interest, and are not gratuitous. Blackface is not acceptable in modern society and is widely considered to reinforce negative racial stereotypes. Likewise the use of the “n-word” in the caption is not acceptable. The examination of acceptable comment and observation with regard to race is ongoing, as it should be. The RNZ stories are part of that conversation, and are not gratuitous.

Re Principle 10 – conflicts of interest. Mr Wendelborn says the stories represent conflicts of interest, as Radio NZ is a state owned broadcaster and the stories feature state-funded parties.

This principle says “To fulfil their proper watchdog role, publications must be independent and free of obligations to their news sources.”

Radio NZ is afforded editorial independence under the Radio New Zealand Act 1990. There are no conflicts of interest in either RNZ story, in the Media Council’s view.

Decision

The complaint is not upheld.

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