Case Number: 2958

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2020

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Stuff


[1] The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) complained about a story published on the Stuff website on 12 August 2020 headlinedCoronavirus: Concerns NZ Defence Force Covid-19 cluster did not self-isolate, which reported on a Covid-19 cluster related to an Air Force group who went on a rugby trip to the US. The story was based on emails between the Auckland Regional Public Health Service and the Air Force, gained through an Official Information Act request. The story said that the cluster had “raised health officials’ eyebrows as military personnel failed to self-isolate”. It also said that the Defence Force “remained clueless” about how the personnel contracted the virus.

The Complaint

[2] The NZDF complained under principle 1: Accuracy Fairness and Balance, and Principle 4: Comment and Fact, which states in part that “a clear distinction should be drawn between factual information and comment or opinion.”

[3] The NZDF said they believed the story selectively used information, was misleading and the use of pejorative language made it unfair. There was no indication until paragraph six that the matters referred to took place some months earlier. This was especially misleading as the story was published on the day the lockdown level was increased during the second outbreak of Covid-19.

[4] The story said NZDF personnel failed to self-isolate. In fact, all of the group carried out self-isolation in their home locations in accordance with the requirements of the Ministry of Health at the time, the NZDF said. Some were isolating in shared barracks, so the NZDF put in additional constraints including extending the length of time they isolated. The NZDF worked closely with the Ministry of Health to work through the implication of self-isolating in shared accommodation - a situation for which there were no established guidelines at the time. The journalist quoted from emails obtained under the Official Information Act (OIA), but it was disingenuous to do so without context.

[5] The reporter’s contention that there was some failure by the NZDF was not accurate - in fact additional measures were imposed to prevent risk to the public.

[6] Following the publication of the report several of the NZDF personnel referred to had been contacted by phone and on social media in a “bullying manner” when they had done exactly what was required of them by the health guidelines at the time.

[7] The NZDF also objected to the sentence: “The Defence Force remained clueless about how they contracted the virus…” The use of the word “clueless” was unfair, as the NZDF could not be expected to know specific details of how the virus was contracted. It prejudged the matter and did not allow the audience to make up its own mind, as a simple presentation of the facts would have. Its use was comment in what was meant to be reportage. The Collins dictionary defines clueless as “showing disapproval of the fact they do not know anything about a particular matter or that they are incapable of doing a particular thinking properly”. It offered the synonyms stupid, thick, dull and naive.

The Response

[8] Stuff replied that there was no intention to mislead as to the timing of the cluster referenced in the story. The story was filed and published before there was any suggestion of a second outbreak. There were references in the first two paragraphs that made it clear the story was about previously identified clusters, based on information gained through the OIA.

[9] The OIA documents clearly showed there were concerns about NZDF personnel’s ability to self-isolate and NZDF senior personnel also expressed concern about this. Emails reported a “lack of capacity to deal with guidance and information for close contacts” and concern that “most of the [air force] personnel have not been following self-isolation and their exposure dates keep moving as a result”. Stuff put this to NZDF and its response was included in the story. While Stuff accepted there were no clear guidelines for shared accommodation at the time, this did not negate the validity of concerns raised by public health officials and the public interest in reporting those concerns.

[10] While the complainant might feel the term “clueless” was emotive, it was factually accurate. The term “clueless” is defined as having no knowledge or understanding, and the NZDF had no knowledge of the source of the infection.

The Decision

[11] The story’s introductory sentence said health officials’ eyebrows were raised when military personnel “failed to self-isolate”, but it was not until paragraph 10 that it was reported that they were unable to self-isolate because they lived in barracks. According to the NZDF they had isolated in a small group and none were released until the NZDF and health authorities were satisfied they had completed full isolation requirements. This version of events has not been challenged.

[12] While the inclusion, towards the end of the story, of the NZDF statement explaining their actions meant the story was not unbalanced, the impression the reader was likely to gain from the headline and angle of the story was that there were concerns about the actions of the NZDF and the “failure to self-isolate”, when the story presents no evidence that the guidelines in place at the time were not followed. Quotes from emails between NZDF and health authorities did reveal concerns, and the reporting of this was legitimate, but it was difficult for the reader to know the significance of these quotes without proper context. The key facts should have been set out earlier in the story. The headline also added to the misleading impression given by the story and could have led readers to believe that the NZDF had not followed the guidelines in place at the time.

[13] The fact that the cluster occurred in April was significant because of the different guidelines in place at that time, and this also should have been made clear earlier in the story. The second paragraph of the story said that the cluster was “previously identified”, but it would have been fairer to make the timing more explicit. Although the story was filed before the alert levels were increased, the timing was unfortunate, due to the increased public interest and sensitivity about Covid-19 at the time.

[14] The story’s flaws were compounded by the use of the word “clueless”. The Media Council believes “clueless” means more than just lacking knowledge about something, as claimed by Stuff. The NZ Oxford Dictionary defines “clueless” as meaning stupid or ignorant. The use of this word was unfair to the NZDF, as they could not have been expected to know the exact source of the virus.

[15] The NZDF complained under Principle 4: Comment and Fact, and Principle 1: Fairness, Balance and Accuracy. The substance of the complaint is captured under Principle 1. The combination of the unreasonable use of the word “clueless” and the way the story was constructed, with key facts only revealed well down the story, meant it had the potential to be misleading and was unfair to the NZDF.

The complaint is upheld.

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

Jo Cribb and Hank Schouten took no part in the consideration of this complaint.