NEW ZEALAND INSTITUTE OF ARCHITECTS AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 3078

Council Meeting: JULY 2021

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Headlines and Captions
Photographs
Right of Reply
Unfair Coverage

Overview

[1] Ta Kāhui Whaihanga NZ Institute of Architects (NZIA) complains about a story published on 13 April 2021 inThe Dominion Post headlined: “Another award-winning house went to the tip over leak issues”and the same story, which appeared on Stuff with the heading: “Another award-winning house by Parsonson Architects had to be torn down.”

[2] NZIA complained under Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, Principle 6: Headlines and Captions, Principle 11: Photographs and Graphics and Principle 12: Corrections. The complaints are not upheld.

Background

[3] The story said that after a Wellington house designed by Parsonson Architects was demolished in March 2021, the owner of another house designed by the same firm, which was demolished in 2016, had approached Stuff.

[4] The owners bought the house in 2006 and added another wing, also designed by Parsonson Architects in 2007. When problems related to leaks occurred, the owners demolished the home.

[5] One of the owners, Michael Cosgrave was quoted as saying he had contacted Gerald Parsonson, director of the firm, to see if there was a solution but did not hear back. Cosgrave said he was “angry and disappointed” at the firm’s lack of response.

[6] Parsonson was quoted as saying Cosgrave told him of the decision to demolish rather than reclad. The only weather-tightness issue he was aware of in the 2007 extension was due to problems with one window. The original house was built to code, using material that was now known to have weather-tightness issues, but that cladding had not caused problems “that I was aware of on this property until we were told it was being demolished,” Parsonson was quoted as saying.

The Complaint

[7] Ta Kāhui Whaihanga NZ Institute of Architects (NZIA) complained about the print article and the online version. Initially NZIA said the complaint was made on behalf of and was endorsed by Parsonson. Later, NZIA said the complaint was brought by NZIA and that the earlier reference was acknowledging that Parsonson was aware of the complaint.

[8] Under Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, NZIA said the article was unbalanced and unfair because Cosgrave’s allegations were in the first paragraphs and Parsonson’s response was not until paragraph 21. “This is not a fair voice, as it is well known that most people do not read entire articles,” NZIA said.

[9] NZIA said the journalist had not sought evidence to substantiate claims about quotes for recladding. The story said: “They received one quote for $800,000 to fix the problems, including replacing the bespoke windows and James Hardie cladding products,” and, “We got four builders in, four window companies in, and the upshot was nobody wanted to even touch it.”

[10] Neither of these statements should have been reported without the journalist confirming these claims by viewing quotes or speaking to the tradespeople involved, and providing the architect with the opportunity to respond.

[11] The story was inaccurate when it said: “Cosgrave said he contacted Parsonson Architects director Gerald Parsonson after receiving the quote to see if there was a solution, and he did not hear back.” Parsonson had not been asked to come up with a solution. He was simply told of the demolition decision, NZIA said.Parsonson had made it clear to the reporter the property owner had decided to demolish the house before calling him. His response should be included in the story.

[12] The reporter did not give Parsonson the opportunity to respond or provide context to the photo that according to the article “showed the plasterboard was full of mould”. Without further information about the scale, location, whether it was near the leaking window and if it was indicative of the entire house, it was misleading.

[13] NZIA also questioned whether weather-tightness was the sole reason behind the demolition decision. “The property owners’ claim that the entire house needed to be demolished due to one leaking window should have been scrutinised.”

[14] It was also inaccurate and unfair to oversimplify a complex issue by placing the blame for a leaky home on the architect. An apology to Parsonson was warranted, NZIA said.

[15] Under Principle 6: Headlines and Captions, and Principle 11: Photographs and Graphics, NZIA said the headline “Another award-winning house by Parsonson Architects had to be torn down” was sensationalist. It was inaccurate to say it “had to be” torn down, as it could have been repaired. The situation with the other house was the same, so it was inaccurate to use the word “another”.

[16] Under Principle 11: Photographs and Graphics, NZIA complained about the photograph that according to the story “showed the plasterboard was full of mould”. The photo’s placement under the paragraph reading, “photos taken during the demolition showed the plasterboard was full of mould” was misleading.

[17] Under Principle 12: Corrections, NZIA said they appreciated the chance for their president to publish an opinion piece on Stuff about the complexity of the leaking building crisis. But it was not published in newspapers that ran the original story and a link had not been included in the original article, as requested.

[18] NZIA had asked for the heading to be changed, for the photo to be removed or a detailed description of where it was added, and the sentence “photos taken during the demolition showed the plasterboard was full of mould” to be clarified or removed. NZIA said the evidence Stuff used to justify not making the changes was not based on fact, but claims made by an angry property owner.

The Response

[19] In its initial response, Stuff said they considered the story and headline to be fair and accurate. While it may have been possible to remediate the damage to the house, it was not economic or practical to do so. The photograph showing the deterioration of the house was accurately captioned. They declined to make changes.

[20] NZIA lodged a formal complaint on 21 April. The following day, Stuff editor-in-chief, verticals, Geoff Collett agreed the article by the NZIA president should have appeared in theDominion Post and a link to it should have been placed in the Stuff story. This would be remedied immediately, he said.

[21] In a fuller response the next day Collett replied to the points raised.

[22] Firstly, that the article was unbalanced and unfair, because Parsonson’s response was well down the story. Stuff disagreed, as all the views and facts provided to Stuff had been reported. But Collett could see the complainant’s view, so the online article had been amended to make this point earlier in the story.

[23] Stuff’s position said it was fair and reasonable to leave the photo in the article. The caption was an accurate representation of what the photo showed – evidence of deterioration. Cosgrave was adamant there was widespread mould and Stuff had no reason not to believe him. Parsonson was reported as questioning the extent of the weather-tightness problem, but he did not deny the possibility of a widespread infestation when talking to the reporter.

[24] NZIA seemed to think that the placement of the photo is intended to refer to the text immediately before it, which contained Cosgrave’s description of the plasterboard being full of mould. This was incorrect, Stuff said. Photos were placed to break up the flow of text, the photo clearly showed timber framing and there was no reference in the caption to plasterboard.

[25] The nature of the complaint raised the question of whether NZIA believed Cosgrave misrepresented the situation. If that was the case, Stuff would be interested to understand why NZIA thought this, Collett said.

[26] The reporter had rechecked Cosgrave’s claims of the $800,000 estimate. Cosgrave had reviewed the figures and confirmed that it was between $750,000 and $800,000, so the story had been amended to reflect that. He had also confirmed the responses from other firms and the engineer’s advice to demolish. While much of the paperwork had been disposed of, Cosgrave provided detailed notes (which were confidential) setting out the estimated costs of a repair. If NZIA had evidence Cosgrave had misrepresented the situation, Stuff would be keen to see it.

[27] Stuff had clarified the nature of the discussion Cosgrave had with Parsonson. Cosgrave said that while he was not seeking a solution, he believes it was clear he wanted to talk the problems through with Parsonson and made that clear. Cosgrave did not hear back from him despite his recollection of such an undertaking. The online article had been amended to clarify Cosgrave’s reason for wanting a discussion with Parsonson.

[28] NZIA asserted that the architect should have been given the opportunity to respond to the claims about the number of companies who viewed the property and the quote provided to repair the house, but Stuff said this did not seem relevant to Parsonson’s involvement. Cosgrave had not engaged Parsonson to review or remedy the problems with the house. Parsonson was given the opportunity to comment on relevant aspects. The full text of the reporter’s exchange was provided by Stuff.

[29] On NZIA’s assertion that the reporter did not ask if weather-tightness was the sole reason behind the decision to demolish, Stuff said she did ask this question and Cosgrave stands by what he said. As he was the property owner, there was little choice but to accept his assurance. It was speculative to conclude he had any other motives. If NZIA had evidence Cosgrave had misrepresented matters, Stuff would review that information with a view to a follow-up story.

[30] Collett said Stuff staff had debated the headline issue robustly. Staff involved thought it was accurate because while there was a semantic argument that it didn’t “have” to be demolished, the use of “had to” reflected the economic realities of the situation.However, as it was of such concern to NZIA, Collett said he had made the “unpopular” decision to change the headline to “Another award-winning house by Parsonson Architects torn down after leaking problems.”

[31] A footnote had been added noting the changes. Stuff did not see any reason to apologise to Parsonson.

[32] In a follow-up response NZIA repeated its concern about the lack of fact-checking of Cosgrave’s statements. Stuff responded, saying that the tenor of NZIA’s complaint suggested they had information contrary to what had been reported, but none had been forthcoming. In his final comment Collett said the NZIA appeared not to believe Cosgrave’s reasons for demolishing the house, but weren’t prepared to back up its scepticism. Given Mr Cosgrave’s willingness to put his name to the claims and to back this up with documentation, which was confidential, Stuff viewed him as a credible source.

Final Comments

[33] In his final comment, Collett noted that while Stuff disagreed with much of what the complainant said, they had dealt with the matter in good faith, including publishing an opinion piece from the NZIA president responding to broad issues raised in the article.

[34] In their final comment, NZIA said the essence of the article was that a homeowner blamed an architect for weather-tightness issues that necessitated the demolition of the house. No real evidence was provided to show fault or to prove that weather-tightness problems even existed. Without clear evidence of what caused the leakage or its extent, it was unfair to blame the architect, who was not given a fair opportunity to respond to all the allegations in the story.

[35] Stuff replied that the late introduction of the suggestion that weather-tightness wasn’t necessarily the cause of the leakage was strange, and the information supplied by Cosgrave clearly pointed to weather-tightness problems.

The Decision

[36] Principle 6: Headlines and captions. NZIA objected to the headline “Another award-winning house by Parsonson Architects had to be torn down,”saying the house did not have to be torn down because it could have been repaired, so the use of “another” and “had to” were incorrect. Given that the owner was advised by an engineer to demolish and that the owner had decided it was not practical or economic to repair it, the Media Council considers that the original headline was not unreasonable. Stuff however decided to change the headline because of the strong concerns of the NZIA, so the Council considers any concerns about the headline have been dealt with.

[37] NZIA also complained about the captioning of a photo, but the Council considers the photograph complaint is better dealt with under Principle 11. The complaint under Principle 6 is not upheld.

[38] Principle 11: Photographs and graphics. NZIA complained about a photograph showing deteriorating woodwork. The photo was captioned: “Deterioration in the house before it was demolished.” This is a straightforward description of what can be seen in the photo and the Media Council can see no problem with this. NZIA objected to a sentence in the text directly above the photograph saying: “Photos taken during the demolition showed the plasterboard was full of mould, Cosgrave said.” NZIA appeared to think that this sentence referred to the photograph below. However, the Council disagrees. The comment in the text was referring to the house as a whole, the photograph below it showed something that looked more like timber framing than plasterboard and that photo was clearly and accurately captioned. NZIA also complained about the lack of context given to the photograph and the lack of opportunity for the architect to comment on the photograph, but this is better dealt with under Principle 1: Fairness Accuracy and Balance. The complaint under Principle 11 is not upheld.

[39] The complaint under Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance falls into three parts. Firstly, NZIA seems to allege that the leaks and damage may have been overstated by the owner and that he may have had other reasons for wanting to demolish the house. NZIA has not responded to Stuff’s invitation to provide evidence of these suggestions. The Council concurs with Stuff that it is reasonable to accept the homeowner’s assertions in the light of the lack of evidence to the contrary. NZIA also criticised what it saw as the reporter’s lack of substantiation of the costs of repairs, but Stuff has seen some documentation provided by the owner that backs up the claims, and the Media Council accepts that it is reasonable to rely on this.

[40] Secondly, NZIA felt that the use of the photograph that showed damage was unfair. They said it was taken out of context, there was no indication of where it was, whether it was just the result of leakage from one window, or how representative it was of the damage. NZIA felt the architect should have been asked to comment on the photo. The Council disagrees. The photo is clearly captioned and it is hard to see how a comment from the architect would have made a difference. Parsonson was told the client blamed the windows and Hardie product for leaking and was asked to comment on this. His response was included in the story.

[41] Thirdly, NZIA complains that the story was not fair to Parsonson, as the homeowner was blaming him for weather-tightness issues that led to demolition, and that Parsonson was not given an adequate right of reply. NZIA complained Parsonson’s reply was at the end of the story and many readers might not have read to that point. In response, Stuff amended the story by inserting one paragraph of Parsonson’s reply further up the story.

[42] Stuff also agreed to publish an opinion piece by the NZIA president saying it was unfair to solely blame an architect for a leaky home problem, although this was not published in the Dominion Post, where the first story appeared, or linked to from the Stuff article, until the NZIA complained, when this was swiftly remedied by Stuff, and the Council believes this did help provide balance.

[43] Regarding the architect’s interaction with the homeowner: Cosgrave was quoted as being unhappy with Parsonson’s response when he contacted him to talk about the home’s problems. The story said: “Cosgrave said he contacted Parsonson Architects director Gerald Parsonson after receiving the quote to see if there was a solution and didn’t hear back.” NZIA said that Parsonson had never been asked to come up with a solution and further discussions with Cosgrave confirmed this, so the online story was amended to say: “Cosgrave said he contacted Parsonson after receiving the estimate and had asked him for a further discussion on the matter but did not hear back.”

[44] Stuff has provided a list of three questions the reporter sent to Parsonson, plus an invitation to make “any other comment you might have” and the answers he provided. She asked: “Michael said he contacted you last in 2016 when he was told it would cost $800,000 to repair the house and did not hear back from you. Is that the case?” Parsonson’s reply did not directly address that point, but in a brief response he said that the owner had told him of his decision to demolish rather than reclad, and that was included in the story.

[45] The Media Council considers that the reporter could have given Parsonson a fairer right of reply if she had given him a fuller outline of what was in the story. For example, it seems the reporter did not put Cosgrave’s statement: “I’m angry at Parsonson because I thought there should have been an accountability,” to Parsonson. However, the Council has not heard directly from Parsonson, so it is difficult to know what further response he would have provided.

[46] In summary, the Council finds there is clearly no breach of Principle 1 regarding the reasons for demolishing the house and the photograph. While Parsonson was given the chance to respond to most aspects of the story, and his comments were included, the reporter could perhaps have given a more complete picture of what Cosgrave was saying. To its credit, Stuff was responsive to the complaint, investigated it quickly and fully, and made changes, placing some of Parsonson’s reply higher up in the story and clarifying the reason Cosgrave contacted Parsonson, changing the headline and publishing a balancing opinion piece. In the light of this, and in spite of the story having some flaws, the Council finds that, on balance, there is no breach of Principle 1.

[47] Principle 12: Corrections. The Council considers Stuff acted quickly and appropriately, changing the headline, making amendments to the story and publishing a balancing opinion piece. NZIA requested corrections to other areas that the Media Council did not believe was warranted. The complaint under Principle 12 is not upheld.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Sandy Gill, Jonathan MacKenzie, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff and Tim Watkin.

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