NEW ZEALAND THOROUGHBRED RACING AGAINST WANGANUI CHRONICLE

Case Number: 2890

Council Meeting: MARCH 2020

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Wanganui Chronicle

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Overview

1. The Whanganui Chronicle published a story in its newspaper and on-line on January 8, 2020 about animal activist’s plans for a “horse racing kills” protest at the Wanganui Jockey Club’s Summer Raceday the next day.

Background

2. The story was published under the headline Protest against horse racing planned for Whanganui race meeting.It reported the organiser of the protest speaking on behalf of the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses who said they wanted to raise awareness of the racing industry’s “cold underbelly”

3. She said a horse was euthanized after falling at the same track the previous year and that about 2500 horses die each year as a result of racing. That included horses injured, horses euthanized off-track, foals without the right temperament and older horses that had become uneconomical to manage.

4. The story published in the paper did not include any comment from the local jockey club or NZTR and the story, as published on-line initially did not either. Lines were subsequently added to the on-line saying that the jockey club referred the Chronicle to NZTR and that NZTR had been approached but did not comment on the planned protest.

The Complaint

5. NZTR corporate communications and media advisor Mary Burgess complained that the Chronicle had breached Media Council principle 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance) and principle 4 (comment and fact).

6. She said there was no balance in the article, with no opposing view sought to that of the protester, the accuracy of the statements was not tested and accordingly the racing industry was treated unfairly.

7. The comment about 2500 horses being slaughtered was unsubstantiated and under principle 4, material facts on which opinions were based should be accurate.

8. The reporter had apparently run a media release without testing its statements or seeking any balance.

9. Comment was sought five hours after the story was put on-line. This was an unacceptable attempt to correct shoddy reporting.

10. Editing of the on-line story did nothing to address the reputational damage caused by the original story and the print version was not edited at all.

11. Comment on the number of horses being slaughtered each year was unsubstantiated. The publication expected NZTR to provide statements to contradict what the protesters stated as fact, where the onus of proof should lie with those making the original statement.

The Response

12. NZME head of regional operations Kim Gillespie acknowledged it made an error in not seeking balance to the claimed number of horse deaths prior to publication. The story was then immediately edited to remove the unverified statement,

13. Since publication it sought comment from NZTR.

14. “We consider that this acknowledged our error adequately and publicly.”

15. It also requested further information from NZTR to remedy the matter. This could have been used to add a correction to on-line copy and/or to a later print copy. As yet NZTR has not provided any statements to contradict the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses statement and to provide balance to the story. “The NZ Racing Board (Sic.) also prevented us from discussing the matter directly with the local jockey club. “ [The Racing Board was disbanded last year and had no part in this story. Gillespie has mistaken it for NZTR]

16. “Given we transparently acknowledged our error and sought to remedy this in a timely manner we are disappointed that the complainant has not engaged to constructively resolve this matter.”

17. “We recognise that on this occasion the story lacked the required balance and we have reiterated the importance of balance in reporting to our team.”

The Decision

18. The Whanganui Chronicle acknowledged that it failed to seek balance.The print version of the story offered no indication that any of the information provided was tested or any attempt was made to seek the view of people representing the racing industry which was the subject of the protest. The on-line version was little better as it was some five hours after the stories were published early on January 8 before comment was sought from the jockey club or NZTR to where it was referred. At that stage the story was edited to remove figures relating to the numbers of race-related horse deaths and slaughter numbers. Lines were also belatedly added saying the jockey club and NZTR had been approached for comment.

19. Media Council Principle 1 states that “Publication 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.”

20. It is not clear whether the figures stated in the story are inaccurate. The number of race-related fatalities is in line with NZTR reported fatalities, but no information has been offered to the Media Council to support or contest the claim that “2500 die each year as a result of horse racing.”

21. However, it is clear that there was a lack of fairness and balance in the way this story was handled. It was one-sided. A fair voice was not given to the jockey club or its parent body NZTR.

22. The editor acknowledged this in correspondence with NZTR but undermines claims to transparency by failing to promptly advise readers of mistakes in the way it reported this article.

23. It might have been helpful to the Chronicle if NZTR had come back with a detailed rebuttal. But given the sensitivity of this issue, the potential for further reputational damage and its concern at the way the Chronicle treated this story in the first instance, NZTR chose not to respond. That was its choice but the story did not have to rest there. Animal welfare is a matter of considerable public interest and rather than shutting the story down the Chronicle could have done further investigations to explore the issues.

24. The complaint under Principle 1 is upheld.

25. 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.

26. The NZTR has not really advanced a case as to how Principle 4 was breached in this news story.

27. It is legitimate function of the news media to report people’s claims and opinions as was done here but contestable facts and claims were totally untested in even the simplest fashion by seeking comment elsewhere.

28. Statements of fact and opinion were advanced by the protest group. NZTR said the group was misinformed but the statements were not directly contested so it is not clear where the facts lie.

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

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.