NEW ZEALAND THOROUGHBRED RACING AGAINST RNZ

Case Number: 2889

Council Meeting: MARCH 2020

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Radio NZ

Ruling Categories:

Overview

Overview

1. New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing complained that a story reporting on an animal rights protest at the Ellerslie Boxing Day race meeting breached Media Council Principle 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance) and Principle 4 (comment and fact).

Background

2. RNZ published an article on-line on December 26, 2019 headlined Animal rights activists target Ellerslie Boxing Day races in Auckland. The story, illustrated by placard carrying activists standing by a pedestrian crossing, reported the group’s claims that the horse racing industry was cruel, that 18 horses had died in relation to races that year, that horses were made to train too early and that this put them at high risk of injury. The story also reported the reaction of motorists, some of whom tooted their support while others, who were turning into the racecourse swore or gestured at the protesters. It also quoted a couple of passers-by who believed the racing industry, trainers and jockeys looked after their horses really well.

3. An extra few paragraphs reporting a statement from New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing Berard Sandry, who rebutted the protest group’s claims, were added to the story later.

The Complaint

4. NZTR corporate communications and media advisor Mary Burgess complained that when the story was first put on-line it included the statement NZTR had been approached for comment although nobody in the organisation had been contacted.

5. When she complained to a reporter she was asked whether it would help if he added NZTR’s press release comment and re-ran the story. She replied that the damage had already been done and that a re-run would amplify the protest group’s misinformation. Despite this it was re-run with a handful of comments from the NZTR chief executive tacked on the end, “presumably to add the balance which was absent initially.”

6. She said the story was a media release from an Australian-based protest group which ran without any of the claims made being challenged. The lack of any journalistic rigour had helped the group spread their misinformation and NZTR should have been provided the opportunity to respond before it was put on-line.

7. While RNZ had responded to the complaint with an acknowledgement that principles had been breached, this did not assist in repairing reputational damage to the racing industry. NZTR asked for instructions from the Media Council on how acknowledgement of the breach should be broadcast or published.

The Response

8. RNZ complaints coordinator George Bignell said the complaint had been upheld byRNZ and acknowledged the handling of this story did not meet its editorial policies or Media Council principles. He also apologised.

9. Although he mistakenly said this was a report of a protest outside the Auckland Trotting Club race meeting (it was in fact an Auckland Racing Club meeting) he challenged points made in the complaint. Mr Bignell saidRNZ did not simply re-run a press release and he noted that none of the statements made by the protest group were directly challenged by NZTR as being inaccurate.

10. Elements of balance were provided by reporting the reaction of motorists turning into the racecourse and two race attendees who were quoted as saying they thought the industry probably looked after the horses well. These elements would have provided a signal to readers of the first published article that other points of view existed on the topic. In a developing story this was what was required of the balance standard. While it would have been better to have had comment from the ATC (Sic.) in the first iteration of the story, there was sufficient “devil’s advocacy” to alert listeners to a contrary opinion.

11. The reference in the story that the ATC (Sic.) had been approached for comment came about through human error in the newsroom. When the reporter said he was seeking comment this was taken to mean erroneously that the ATC (Sic.) had been approached.

The Decision

12. RNZ has already upheld this complaint and acknowledged it did not meet its editorial standards or Media Council principles, although it has not set out clearly what standards or principles had been breached.

13. It acknowledged there was a mistake in the story when it said comment had been sought, when it had not been. This was inaccurate as well as being unfair to NZTR and the story, as originally published, was unbalanced.

14. 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. In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view.”

15. It is not clear how long the story was on-line in its original form before NZTR’s denials of the protest group’s complaints were added. This was done despite NZTR’s request that it did not want this as a re-run of the story would amplify the misinformation that had already been published. The Media Council believes it was appropriate forRNZ to add the NZTR’s denials, even though it would only have been seen by people who read the later version of the story.

16. The complaint under Principle 1 is upheld.

17. A further complaint was laid under Principle 4, which requires publications to draw clear distinctions between comment and fact. This is usually applied to columns, editorials, cartoons, letters to the editor and other opinion-related content.It also applies to editorialising in news stories but in this case, all comments were attributed to those expressing them.

18. The NZTR has not really advanced a case as to how Principle 4 was breached in this fairly straight forward, although flawed, news story.

19. It is legitimate function of the news media to report people’s claims and opinions as was done in this story. This story reported there had been 18 race-related horse deaths this year to support its claim that the industry was cruel. It also reported the claim that horses were made to train way too early in their lives, when their bone structure and muscles were still developing. That put them at high risk of injury and if they were injured on the track they were often killed.

20. These are clearly statements of fact and opinion put forward by the protest group. Apart from saying the group had made misinformed claims NZTR did not directly contest the statements made, so it is not clear where the facts lie.

21. Principle 4 is not applicable in this case and this part of the complaint is not upheld.

22. As for the remedy sought by NZTR, the Media Council does not force publication of apologies. However, publishers are obliged to report Media Council rulings against them. RNZ is therefore expected to publish a summary of this ruling.

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

Craig Cooper stood down to maintain the public member majority.

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