MAXIME NOLTEN AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 3036

Council Meeting: APRIL 2021

Verdict: Upheld with Dissent

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Discrimination
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Headlines and Captions
Unfair Coverage

Overview

On 28 February 2021, Stuff published an article titled Covid-19: Tattoo studio which offered all-night sessions before Auckland lockdown finished 300 by 4am. Maxime Nolten of the tattoo studio Tattoo Gold has complained that the article breaches several NZ Media Council principles.

The Article

The Stuff article was headed: Covid-19: Tattoo studio which offered all-night sessions before Auckland lockdown finished 300 by 4am. The article referred to posts made by Tattoo Gold on their Instagram account announcing they had walk-ins available throughout Saturday night and early Sunday morning, with slots from 8pm to 3am. The article included posts by Tattoo Gold on Instagram with an example of when a tattoo had been completed. At 11.41pm on Saturday 27 February one post on the Tattoo Gold Instagram account said “another walk-in down”. Another Instagram message which was posted at 5.29am on Sunday 28 February referred to their shifts being finished 31 minutes before the level 3 restrictions took effect. Stuff reported that the Instagram “posts have since been removed”.

The article included a comment by Dr Siouxsie Wiles who remarked, in part, that although the business had not broken the rules, “they have not acted in the spirit of them”.

The Complaint

Maxime Nolten sent a complaint to Stuff on March 4. In a follow up email to the NZ Media Council she highlighted that Stuff thought they had written “the article with facts, just because they have seen Instagram stories which do not relate what they wrote about, it was blown out of proportion to make their story look impressive.”

Ms Nolten provided examples such as “we never once said that we did 300 tattoos and never posted this online. It is completely impossible to do 300 tattoos with 2 artists that were advertised to work the late night” and “Stuff makes it look like we did walk-ins without an appointment. The term walk-ins means walking into a studio and requesting an appointment, but the appointments were made via messaging before the announcement.”

The complaint notes the posting of the Instagram post advising appointments were available was “around 7-7.30pm” (prior to the 9pm announcement of the level 3 lockdown) saying “we did not even know about the announcement, and it clearly was not in retaliation to the 9pm announcement.”

Ms Nolten has described the article as “false and not a true representation of who we are” and has purported “This article puts our business at risk and we do not believe this is fair. We did not break any laws or regulations.”

There has been a request for the article to be removed ASAP and an apology from Stuff to Tattoo Gold.

The complaint has referred to the breach of NZ Media Council Principles: 1, 4, 6, 7 and 12.

The Response

In an initial response to Ms Nolten, Stuff deputy editor Janine Fenwick did not accept that the “story is incorrect or that it warrants an apology from Stuff”. Ms Fenwick referred to Tattoo Gold’s Instagram posts “One of our directors personally saw your post on Tattoo Gold’s Instagram story that the studio had done 300 tattoos by 4am.” Ms Fenwick confirmed that Stuff would not be “changing our story because you backtracked on the initial volumes that you yourselves promoted on your social account.”

Ms Fenwick explained that the reporter had “emailed you and also left a message on a cellphone number asking for comments. The story was published a few hours later.”

Ms Fenwick provided screenshots of Tattoo Gold’s Instagram posts to address the allegation of breaches of the Media Council principles.

Principle one: accuracy. Ms Fenwick said the screenshots support the premise of the article regarding the number of tattoos and availability of tattoo artists through the evening until the morning of the level 3 lockdown which started at 6am on Sunday 28 February. Principle one: fairness and balance. Ms Fenwick advises that the Stuff reporter had provided “at least four hours” for a response prior to publishing the article. Stuff believed “time was of the essence and publication was justified” so proceeded on with publishing the article without comment from Tattoo Gold.

Ms Fenwick had little comment on the alleged breach of Principle 4: comment and fact, referring only to the quote by microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles.

In referring to Principle 6: headline, Ms Fenwick asserts that the article carried an accurate headline based on information that was taken from Tattoo Gold’s Instagram account.

For Principle 7: discrimination and diversity. Ms Fenwick says none of the categories have been breached and “are not relevant to this story.”

In referring to Principle 12: corrections, Ms Fenwick has advised that had evidence been provided that the story was incorrect then Stuff could have corrected it.

Further Correspondence

Ms Nolten advised they already had several bookings for the Saturday night, booked ahead of the lockdown announcement. Tattoo Gold takes the pandemic and lockdown very seriously and supports the Government’s elimination strategy. All staff and customers were very conscious of the announcement and worked to ensure safe practices and separation.

Ms Nolten explained it was physically impossible to do 300 tattoos with only three artists working. The 300 was simply a typo, they had tattooed 13 clients after the lockdown announcement.

Allowing four hours to respond or comment was an insufficient amount of time especially as the reporter knew they had worked extremely late.

The article had subjected them to many abusive online comments.

She again called for removal of the article.

Ms Fenwick said posts did not support the claim that all the work was from planned bookings.

This was the first time Ms Nolten had said 300 was a typo. They had now replaced 300 with 13 in the story and headline and added a correction.

Responding to claims from Tattoo Gold that they weren’t given enough time to respond, Stuff considered that given the seriousness of the pandemic situation and that they had clearly been active online throughout the weekend four hours was a reasonable time to wait for comment.

The Decision

In the complaint, Ms Nolten has referred to the following principles and purports that each of the following principles has been breached:

Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance

Principle 4: Comment and Fact

Principle 6: Headlines and Captions

Principle 7: Discrimination and Diversity

Principle 12: Corrections

NZ Media Council Principle 1 states 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.

The content of the article was limited to information extracted from Tattoo Gold Instagram posts, their website and comment from Dr Wiles.

We see the key issue in this complaint as being fairness, and to a lesser extent accuracy, in particular fairness to the subject of the article, the business Tattoo Gold. Principle 1 relating to accuracy, balance and fairness arises.

The article was damaging to Tattoo Gold as it indicated that it had processed a huge number of customers over a number of hours in anticipation of the pending lockdown. It provoked stern criticism from a respected public figure, and predictable adverse public reactions.

We note at the outset that the reference to 300 tattoos was plainly inaccurate, though the inaccuracy stemmed from an inaccurate Tattoo Gold Instagram, as did the inference that Stuff drew that Tattoo Gold was accepting walk-ins. Much of what happened stemmed from those inaccuracies of Tattoo Gold, and the exact factual position on some of the issues is still not entirely clear to us.

However, common sense might have suggested that this figure was likely to have been wrong and should have been checked before publication. This would also have included finding out how many artists were working on the night concerned. Tattoo Gold says 2-3. The article notes they have seven, though makes no mention of how many were working at the time.

The article was published four hours after approaching Tattoo Gold for comment at 3.03pm on a Sunday afternoon and via a business email address and leaving a message on a cell phone.

The lockdown announcement and the tattoo work that is the subject of the article, took place on the Saturday night 27 February 2021. Stuff was plainly planning a critical article including comment from Dr Wiles. Yet its only effort to obtain comment from Tattoo Gold was on the Sunday afternoon at 3 minutes past 3, and when Auckland was in lockdown mode. The contact was by sending an email to the Tattoo Gold business address and leaving a message on a cell phone. The business could have been expected to be closed because of the lockdown.

The email stated, after the reporter was introduced, “I understand you guys had a busy night ahead of the Level change. We’re interested in doing a story. Please let me know if it’s something you’d be interested in”. We have not been provided the content of the phone message, but have no material indicating that it was more explicit than the email.

Two matters of fairness arise. First, the content of the email. The email does not alert Tattoo Gold to the nature of the proposed story, which is a serious criticism of Tattoo Gold processing 300 clients jammed in before the lock down commenced. The wording of the email is bland, indicating no urgency, no deadline, and no serious criticism of the conduct of Tattoo Gold. It does not fairly alert Tattoo Gold to what it must answer and the time frame. It is not fair notice.

Second, the time of the email and time-frame are not reasonable. Plainly at 3 pm on that Sunday afternoon the business was not operating or taking bookings for immediate business. The email may well not have been sighted over such a relatively short period of four hours at that time. This was particularly so as Stuff knew that the staff had worked very late the night before, and would be doing no tattoo work.

The matter of how many tattoos had been completed would easily have been determined had contact been made. So too could the issue, (now contested) of whether they took walk-in customers in the interregnum period. The reporter should have been aware of the strangeness of a modest Tattoo business being able to deal with 300 customers over one night and should have made a particular effort to obtain comment.

Additionally, the article implies that Tattoo Gold was “touting” for business after the lockdown announcement and accepting off-the-street walk-ins. Although there was some legitimate confusion over what the term walk-in meant, Tattoo Gold has provided a screen shot of a message exchange with a prospective client, posted at 20.03 advising that they were “all booked out”. This information was not available to Stuff at the time of publication but would have been clarified had Stuff waited for comment.

These matters have led to inaccuracy and unfairness to Tattoo Gold. If its comment had been fairly obtained, a significantly different article or no article at all might have followed.

The majority of the Council members upheld on Principle 1.

Two members, Katrina Bennett and Hank Schouten would not have upheld on this Principle.

The Council is unable to uphold the complaints based on the other Principles. In relation to Principle 4:, this article dealt with reportage of Instagram posts for Tattoo Gold and the one quote captured is clearly attributed to a microbiologist and commentator on COVID-19 in NZ. In relation to Principle 6, while the headline did reflect the content of the article, there was an error in the wording and owing to the short notice period to Tattoo Gold there was no opportunity for the headline to be corrected, as discussed above. In relation to Principle 7, the content of the article does not place gratuitous emphasis on any of the categories set out under this principle.

It is necessary to refer to Principle 12: Following receipt of the complaint correspondence, Stuff revised the article and the headline to reflect that Tattoo Gold’s Instagram posts ought to have stated ‘13’ rather than ‘300’ tattoos and added a correction at the foot of the story. However, the article retained the criticism of Dr Wiles, who presumably had been informed of the 300 tattoos, and remained critical in tone, and did not set out any of the perspectives of Tattoo Gold. We are unable to precisely calculate the times of the corrections, but even assuming that Stuff’s amendments were timely, they do not remedy the unfairness of not making better efforts to get comment from Tattoo Gold at the outset.

We understand that this was a newsworthy topic when Auckland was in a state of lockdown crisis. There was pressure on Stuff to get it out while it was still newsworthy. But Stuff was not imparting urgent health or safety information; it was making a serious criticism of a business that it had the night before operated outside of the spirit of the lockdown. If Tattoo Gold’s perspective that it was simply cleaning up existing appointments by doing 13 tattoos, and not accepting walk-ins, (whether that is right or not) had been part of the article, a different impression would have been given. It was unfair of Stuff to not make more effort to get that perspective, given the severe criticism it had in mind.

Therefore the majority of the Media Council upholds the complaint on the basis of unfairness, lack of balance and resulting inaccuracy.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair) Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

Katrina Bennett and Hank Schouten dissented from the uphold decision on Principle 1.

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