Case Number: 2827

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: TVNZ

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Unfair Coverage


[1] On May 25, 2019 TVNZ published an article on its website Exclusive: Buying essays from ghost writers allegedly widespread among international students at NZ universities. The article reported on allegations that the practice of tertiary students paying someone else to prepare answers to assignments on their behalf (known as ‘ghost writing’) was widespread in New Zealand, particularly amongst international students. In developing its point, the article refers to three interviews undertaken with three Chinese international students, which form the foundation for the allegation. The article also refers to discussions held with a person holding themselves out as a ghost writer, the universities of Auckland and Massey and a statement from the Minister of Education.

The Complaint

[2] Marshall Ren complains that the article discriminates against the Chinese international student community. He suggests that the three interviews with Chinese international students form the evidential basis for the allegation and, in turn, these portray the Chinese international students as ‘cheating all the time’ and that the opinions of a minority have been portrayed as the behaviour of the majority. In his original complaint toTVNZ Mr Ren also suggests that the article has a number of factual mistakes. In particular, he complains that there is no evidence (in particular appropriately researched statistics) indicating the claims made in the interviews are true. Mr Ren develops his thesis in a piece of unpublished academic work that accompanies his complaint to the Council. In this, among other things, he focuses on the use of the words ‘widespread’ and ‘exclusive … investigation’ as used in the article claiming, in essence, that this language has been used to bolster an otherwise weak report aimed at highlighting stereotypical images of Chinese students. He also suggests that the article subconsciously implies, by reference to the substantial revenue brought into New Zealand from international students, that Chinese international students are rich and using this wealth to pass courses that they otherwise could not.

[3] In later correspondence to the Council responding to TVNZ’s treatment of his complaint, Mr Ren suggests that the central problem with the article is one of ‘inferential’ racism. In essence, that the tone of the language used by the article builds up a negative image of international students (and he appears to accept that this inference may be against international students generally, and not necessarily Chinese students in particular). His overall criticism appears to be that by interviewing and reporting on the comments of three students who use ghost writers, the article unfairly reflects on all international students and he is unhappy at the way the article reflects on honest and hardworking students such as himself.

[4] Mr Ren considers that Media Council Principle 1 (Accuracy, Fairness and Balance); Principle 4 (Comment and Fact); and Principle 7 (Discrimination and Diversity) have been breached.

The Response

[5] Mr Ren’s complaint was considered by TVNZ’s Complaints Committee, which concluded there had been no beach of the Media Council’s principles.

[6] The committee did not consider that the article breached principle 1 concluding it was accurate, balanced and fair. In its view, readers would not be misled by the story. It is clear that the claims made by the students interviewed are allegations and that the precise extent of cheating is unknown. This point was supported by other comments in the article; provided by Auckland and Massey universities. Balance was achieved by contrasting the statements made by the students with comments obtained from these universities and the statement provided by the Minster of Education. The committee could identify no unfairness to any individual or organisation.

[7] The committee also decided that there was no breach of principle 4 as the student’s comments were described as allegations and the article contained a number of different opinions on the issue being discussed, it was not (and did not need to be) presented as an opinion piece.

[8] Nor could the committee identify a breach of principle 7.It stated that no gratuitous emphasis was placed on any particular category or person. The students interviewed talked about their own experiences of ghost writing and allegations of cheating by international students at universities is a relevant topic that is in the public interest to discuss.

[9] In later correspondence with the Council, TVNZ provides some further comments addressing Mr Ren’s claims (particularly those advanced in his academic note). It states that the words ‘exclusive … investigation’ simply refer to the fact the story was broken by TVNZ. Nor does the article state or infer that the students concerned are wealthy. Reference to the amount of revenue bought into New Zealand by international students highlights why the reputation of New Zealand in this context is important and why it is in the public interest that universities are diligent in addressing this sort of dishonest academic practice. Overall,TVNZ stresses that the story is about international students, not just Chinese students and this is clear from the content of the article.

The Decision

[10] Principle 1 requires that publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission. Principle 4 requires that a clear distinction be drawn between factual information and comment or opinion.

[11] Mr Ren’s complaint about accuracy appears to be driven by the fact the article does not reference objectively verifiable facts supported by appropriately grounded statistics and instead relies heavily on the reporting of the subjective views and practice of three individual students. However, this is a common journalistic practice and it would be unduly onerous for the media to be required to demonstrate the statistical validity of any allegation they may report on. The article is clear that the claims are allegations and there are several comments that highlight that the extent of the ghost writing practice in New Zealand is unknown. The claims made by the interviewees are also appropriately balanced by the comments from two of the universities concerned and the Minister of Education. The Council notes that the article would have been strengthened by reference to a wider range of students, and not simply the three members of the same demographic interviewed. However, the Council concludes that the article is accurate, balanced and fair. Moreover, the article was a factual report about allegations of academic dishonesty at New Zealand universities. It was not an opinion piece and did not need to be identified as such.

Principles 1 and 4 – Accuracy Fairness and Balance; Comment and Fact: Not upheld

[12] In considering the third principle the complaint was filed under, Discrimination and Diversity, the Council must decide whether or notTVNZ placed gratuitous emphasis on the stated categories under NZ Media Council Principle 7.

[13] In this instance Mr Ren complains that the article discriminates against a minority group: the Chinese international student community. Mr Ren is rightly concerned about the effect the poor behaviour of a minority within a group can have on the majority who act with integrity and the Council recognises that he would prefer it if the report focused on objective evidence proving the extent of the problem. However, the standard journalist techniques deployed in this article were not inappropriate and the Council concludes that the article does not place gratuitous emphasis on Chinese international students.

[14] While the interviewees happened to be Chinese their comments clearly encompass international students generally. None of the interviewees suggest that it is only Chinese students engaging in the practice. While the reporter contacted a ghost writer on a Chinese website, the ethnicity of that person is not mentioned and it cannot be assumed he or she is Chinese. Moreover, it was also made clear that some in the general population of New Zealand students also offer this sort of ‘service’. Moreover, the article references other journalistic investigations exposing the activities of a ghost writing ‘agency’ based in Auckland (as an illustration of the potential extent of the problem) and there is no reference to the ethnicity of the students or ghost writers involved in that incident. Overall, the article is balanced and Chinese students are not its sole focus. Appropriately, Mr Ren concedes that the article is not overtly racist; instead suggesting that it is an example of inferential racism. While the Council is prepared to accept that articles may breach principle 7 without being overtly racist, in this case the Council concludes that the standard ofgratuitous emphasis is not met.

Principle 7 - Discrimination and Diversity: Not upheld

Media Council members considering this complaint were Liz Brown, Rosemary Barraclough, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Hank Schouten and Christina Tay.

Tim Watkin stood down to maintain a public member majority.