MIRIAM MEYERHOFF AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2837

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Children and Young People
Privacy
Tragedies, Offensive Handling of

Overview

On August 7, 2019 Stuff published an article titled Whanganui ‘Nan’ Lorraine Smith who murdered granddaughter spared life jail term.The article provides details of the court case where Lorraine Smith pleaded guilty to murdering her 13 year-old granddaughter Kalis Smith.The article outlines the judge’s comments and sentencing, the details of the murder and aftermath and the family circumstances of Lorraine Smith.Statements show that Ms Smith had a hard life, carried a heavy burden, had looked for help but been overwhelmed by her circumstances.Her remorse was clear.

The Complaint

Professor Miriam Meyerhoff complains that the details provided were ‘lurid’, ‘prurient’ and sensationalised the circumstances.She argues that such details were not necessary and there was no public interest in disclosing them.In her view they demean Kalis as these details will be what she is remembered by. In reproducing details of the grandmother’s desperate mental state and subsequent overdose, she argues the article brings shame on sufferers of mental illness.

She concludes by stating that because the grandmother pleaded guilty and the judge cited mitigating circumstances the reporting makes no social point and demeans New Zealand journalism as well as the subject of the article.

In her final comments, Ms Meyerhoff refers to the judgment and suggests that details presented in the article are inaccurate.By reporting that Smith struggled with Kalis and juxtaposing this with a statement about placing a finger under the girl’s nose, Ms Meyerhoff argues that Stuff implies that checking that she was dead was part of a coordinated series of actions that show an intention to kill Kalis.She states that this was not what the judgment outlines.She also suggests that the article is inaccurate by omission.The judgment includes information about the circumstances of the history and wider family that was not included in the article. By focusing on the ‘lurid’ details of the murder, Ms Meyerhoff argues that Stuff has misrepresented the facts of the judgment that outline the wider vulnerability of the family.

The Response

Eric Janssen editor of The Dominion Post responds.He acknowledges that the article makes confronting reading.He states that in cases like this it is important to help readers make sense of a crime that would be unimaginable and horrific to just about everyone.The public interest is strong – what drove a woman – a ‘nan’ – to murder her own granddaughter?As such the article is longer-form than standard court reporting, and included detail in order to provide context around the relationships and the state of mind of the accused.

Mr Janssen goes on to state that much media coverage upsets some people some of the time and they take no pleasure in that but argues that is no reason to provide sanitised accounts.

He argues that the article did not breach any media standards.He specifically mentionsPrinciple 2 Privacy.He states that the article was based on attending the court case and studying the court documents in an open court with no name suppression.He also mentionsPrinciple 3 Children and Young People and rejects the claim that the article demeans Kalis.He instead argues that Kalis has had her life cut short and deserves to have her story told in full.He concludes that there was more than one victim in this case – both Lorraine and Kalis were victims, though in substantially different ways.

The Decision

While the Media Council can appreciate Ms Meyerhoff’s argument that the content of the article is difficult to read, it does not agree that publishing it was not in the public interest.The Media Council agrees with Stuff that sharing such details provided the context needed for the reader to understand what happened in this tragic case.

The Media Council can see no breaches of its Principles.Principle 2 states that ‘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’.The article was drawn from court attendance and court records in a full, open court.The information was already as such on the public record.

Principle 3 states that ‘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’. It is the Media Council’s view that the public interest in understanding this case warranted the details being shared.

The Media Council also does not agree that the article is inaccurate.It presents a precis of the court case as is required with media reporting and, while not of the depth that Ms Meyerhoff would have wished, the reader was informed of the complexity and vulnerability of the family.

The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.