MARIA SLADE AGAINST ONEROOF

Case Number: 3277

Council Meeting: JUNE 2022

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: OneRoof

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Conflicts of Interest

Ruling Categories: Bias

Overview

[1] Maria Slade has complained about a story published by the New Zealand Herald under its OneRoof real estate brand on nzherald.co.nz on April 7, 2022.

[2] The story is about the sale of a house in the suburb of Avondale against a backdrop of sliding prices and weaker demand for real estate across the country.

[3] The story is headlined: Vendors sell bungalow for $1.75m just months after rejecting offer of $2m. A subheading reads: Homeowners had to pass on offer because they could not find another house to buy.

The Complaint

[4] Maria Slade complains that the story breaches Media Council Principles 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance and Principle 10: Conflicts of Interest.

[5] She says the premise and facts of the story, which was published on the Herald’s homepage, were “completely incorrect”.

[6] “We never received an offer of $2m, and therefore never rejected one.”  The property was not on the market at the time referenced in the story and she was moving to a new home, the purchase of which was agreed in February. 

[7] “There were no lengthy negotiations with the Henry Street buyers other than a short conversation at the auction, and the house was sold unconditionally on the day.”

[8] The story had upset the buyers of Ms Slade’s Henry Street property and would likely make it difficult for them to sell their own home in the same suburb which would have negative financial consequences for both parties.

[9] The real estate agent quoted in the story - who was Ms Slade’s agent also - had told Ms Slade that her “general comments” had been “misinterpreted”.

[10] OneRoof stories should be held to the same journalistic standards “of accuracy, fairness and balance” as the Herald’s other coverage.

[11] The story was based on one phone call to one agent whose comments were misinterpreted and not fact-checked with any other source.

The Response

[12] There were two responses to the complaint, one from the Herald’s managing editor Shayne Currie and a later response from OneRoof Editor Owen Vaughan.

[13] In his letter Mr Currie said he had spoken to Mr Vaughan for background. He said the story was removed from publication while the complaint was investigated and there was no plan to republish the article.

[14] Mr Currie proposed a “correction and clarification” covering the following points.

[15] That the home was sold for $1.705m, not $1.75m; that the negotiation period after the auction was was a matter of minutes not “lengthy”; that the agent’s comments in relation to the Avondale market were generic comments - “and that the agent states that she was not referring to you or the sale of your home when she made comments about the rejection of an earlier $2m offer”.

[16] Mr Currie apologised “for the errors”. He said OneRoof reporters were trained journalists “who strive to meet the same exacting standards of fairness, accuracy and balance as the rest of the NZME editorial team”.

[17] Mr Currie said the reporter was genuine in the understanding that the $2m offer was in relation to the complainant’s home.

[18] In his response, Mr Vaughan noted that “we acted promptly” in removing the article while the complaint was investigated. However, “we stand by our highly experienced reporter’s notes”. Furthermore we offered to publicly correct the record but Ms Slade has rejected our offer.”

[19] Mr Vaughan said “we absolutely refute” Ms Slade’s claim that the story deliberately misled or misinformed readers.

[20] Real estate agent Anna Lechtchinski was the leading agent in the suburb of Avondale and her knowledge of the market and her comments “carry weight”.

[21] “She was aware from the start of the interview that Ms Smith was a reporter for OneRoof and that her comments would be used in a report published on the site.”

[22] Mr Vaughan had been through the reporter’s notes and they corroborated what was reported in the story.

[23] “I concluded that the report reflected the notes from interview, and that the quotes had not been fabricated or that Ms Lechtchinski had been misquoted.”

[24] “I was now in a position where our reporter had been told one thing by Ms Lechtchinski on the Wednesday, which Ms Lechtchinski then denied saying the next day.”

[25] The point about the auction being brought forward was not in the original copy or the published article and referred to a discussion the reporter and agent had at the start of the interview.

The Discussion

Discussion

[26] Ms Slade has made a legitimate complaint about inaccuracies in a story about the sale of her home. On receiving the complaint OneRoof editor Owen Vaughan and NZ Herald Managing Editor Shayne Currie both acted quickly to resolve the matter.  Mr Vaughan phoned Ms Slade on the day he received the complaint and went to some lengths to unpick the issues.

[27] In a letter to Ms Slade, Mr Currie admitted the story was inaccurate, he apologised and offered a remedy but that was not to Ms Slade’s satisfaction. Mr Currie offered to correct the sale price, the negotiation period and to clarify the points around the agent’s comments being general and not specific to Ms Slade’s property.

[28] Ms Slade chose not to accept Mr Currie’s offer because in her view a correction would reinforce an impression that a $2m offer was made on the property.

[29] The inaccuracies around the eventual sale price and the negotiation time are straightforward and clear cut.  But whatever occurred between the reporter and the agent at the time of the interview is less transparent, with both parties blaming the other for the confusion.  After talking to Ms Lechtchinski, the reporter, and reviewing her notes, Mr Vaughan is convinced that it is Ms Lechtchinski who is at fault regarding the confusion around the reported $2m offer on the property.

[30] The Media Council notes that while the reporter's notes and Vaughan's recollection of his phone call with the agent suggest it was Ms Lechtchinski who raised the $2m figure, the agent is not party to the complaint, and we do not have her version of events. So it is impossible to ascertain which party is correct or how the misunderstanding occurred. Also, Mr Currie appears to accept that the issue of the $2m offer was a point of confusion that required correction or clarification and not a point of “contention” as Mr Vaughan has claimed.

[31] What we do know is that there was no $2m offer and the story was clearly flawed. But that error was dealt with promptly and professionally by One Roof and then the Herald; it was a textbook response to a serious complaint. Phone calls were made on the night, the story was taken down and a sensible correction and apology promptly offered. The story that now exists does not mention the complainant's house, leads with another story of another house in another suburb, and merely includes the agent's accurately reported comments about the Avondale market. That the complainant chose not to accept the correction is her right, but the inaccuracy was promptly corrected in line with Media Council principles. On that basis the complaint under Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance is not upheld.

[32] Principle 10: Conflicts of interest states - To fulfil their proper watchdog role, publications must be independent and free of obligations to their news sources. They should avoid any situations that might compromise such independence. Where a story is enabled by sponsorship, gift or financial inducement, that sponsorship, gift or financial inducement should be declared. Where an author’s link to a subject is deemed to be justified, the relationship of author to subject should be declared.

[33] The second part of Ms Slade’s complaint is considered under Principle 10. Ms Slade contends that the Herald regularly runs OneRoof stories “as if they are objective news” as a means of promoting the OneRoof real estate listings website. She says OneRoof stories should be held to the same journalistic standard as regular news stories.

[34] The Media Council agrees and notes Mr Currie’s and Mr Vaughan’s vehement rejection of Ms Slade’s claims. Mr Vaughan points out that the reporter who wrote the story is a 20-year veteran of the journalistic craft. It is not unusual for media organisations to have bonafide journalists assigned to a beat that serves reader interests on commercial platforms such as OneRoof. There is no suggestion that they are in any way compromised nor does Ms Slade offer any proof to support her claims to the contrary. 

 
Decision
: The complaint is not upheld

Council members considering the complaint were the Hon. Raynor Asher (Chair), Judi Jones, Rosemary Barraclough, Hank Schouten, Alison Thom, Jonathan Mackenzie, Marie Shroff, Richard Pamatatau, Ben France-Hudson, Tim Watkin.

Council member Craig Cooper declared a conflict of interest and did not participate in the discussion of the complaint.

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