Case Number: 3509

Council Meeting: April 2024

Decision: Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions

Ruling Categories: Bias


  1. Richard Easther, Linda Price and Heather MacBride lodged individual complaints about the same NZ Herald  story published on 13 February 2024 and headlined AT pushes on with project building $500k crossings. All three complain about the correction the NZ Herald  printed when it accepted that the story and its headline were inaccurate.
  2. Heather MacBride’s complaint goes further and cites 10 NZ Herald  stories about pedestrian crossings published between 25 January and 13 February 2024.
  3. The Media Council determined the three complaints were similar and it would therefore consider them together.
  4. The complainants said Media Council Principles (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; (4) Comment and Fact; (6) Headlines and Captions; and (12) Corrections were breached. The complaints are upheld under Principle (12).

The Article

  1. The three complaints are broad and raise a range of particular details but are all concerned that the NZ Herald’s coverage of pedestrian crossings has been inaccurate and biased against Auckland Transport’s (AT) building programme.
  2. The NZ Herald’s coverage of Auckland Transport’s spending up to $500,000 on crossings dates back to late 2023. It is based on a Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA) request. AT’s reply says 27 signalised crossings have been planned or installed for a total cost of $12,697, 956 in the current financial year (presumably FY 2023/24). It includes this breakdown:

    No. of signalised crossings Constructed from FY21-22 to Date In construction Planned to the end of this FY Total
    12 4 11 27
    Estimated Cost $6,088,276 $1,572,937 $5,036,743 $12,697,956

    Caption: In total 27 signalised pedestrian crossings have been or planned to be installed as part of the current Road Safety programme.
  3. An AT email to NZ Herald  reporter Bernard Orsman on 24 January and supplied to the Media Council by Ms MacBride, confirms AT has changed its approach to crossings, that it is reviewing the number of Pt Chevalier/Meola Road crossings “for opportunities to minimise the number of crossings”, and that crossing prices for that project range “from $19k to $31k”.
  4. The NZ Herald’s correction published in print on 14 February reads:
A headline about pedestrian crossings being built between Point Chevalier and Westmere on February 13 said they cost $500,000 each. This was incorrect. The story also omitted AT's estimate for the crossings, which it predicts will cost between $19,000 and $31,000 each.
  1. The correction attached to the online story reads:
Correction: This story originally omitted AT’s cost estimates for the Point Chevalier to Westmere pedestrian crossings. It has since been updated.

The Complaint

  1. All three complainants raise concerns about the February 13 story. Their concerns are threefold: the NZ Herald  focused on its previous revelations that crossings had been costing up to $500,000 giving the impression the crossings in Pt Chevalier and on Meola Rd would cost as much; left out information from AT that these crossings were in fact estimated to cost $19,000-$31,000; and that the headline AT pushes on with building $500k crossings misled readers.
  2. Mr Easther captures the essence of all three complaints in regard to the February 13 story. He says the headline and reporting gave the misleading impression these Pt Chevalier/Meola Road crossings could cost up to $500,000 when the NZ Herald  knew they would cost “vastly less”; more precisely, “16 to 26 times less”. That was underlined by the standfirst, which read “Work on 28 raised crossings set to start after review despite furore over cost”; Mr Easther says the implication is that there is a “furore” over the Pt Chevalier/Meola Road cost, not the earlier crossings. The misleading impression was capped off by reportage in the second paragraph that “revelations that crossings are costing up to $500,000”. While that referred to other crossings covered in previous articles, it implied the Pt Chevalier/Meola Road crossings would cost as much, especially given the omission of the $19,000-$31,000 quote.
  3. He says the story is “inaccurate to the point of recklessness”. It emphasises the cost of the crossings and leaves out details about where the crossings will be. As with many of his articles on infrastructure, the reporter fails to give context and picks sides.
  4. The complaints about this article are made under principles (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance which says articles should not mislead readers “by commission or omission” and that “a fair voice” must be given to competing views and (6) Headlines and Captions, which says headlines and sub-headings should accurately reflect the article.
  5. The NZ Herald  corrected the online story on the day of publication, changing the headline, adding the lower AT estimates and publishing a correction at the bottom of the story and the next day published a correction in print. The standfirst is no longer on the online story, but it is unclear whether it was ever there or only on the print version. A column raising much the same issues as the complainants was printed on February 15. The complainants accept the corrections were made promptly but say printing an opinion piece does not make up for biased reporting.
  6. The trio also take issue with other aspects of the corrections and complain underpPrinciple (12) Corrections which says corrections should be prompt and prominent and that in some instances an apology will be appropriate. Mr Easther says the print correction appears on page five, when the original story was on page three and it was in smaller type. That is “manifestly inadequate”. He adds that saying “AT’s estimate” implies uncertainty about final cost.
  7. Linda Price adds that the NZ Herald  was wrong to call the inflated figure an “error” because they had the accurate figure and chose not to use it. She also argues the NZ Herald should apologise to AT and the people of Auckland for inaccuracy that put “lives at risk” because of its impact on public opinion and political decision-making. She was concerned that in the corrected story what she calls the “actual costs” $19,000-$31,000 was added into the fifth paragraph when the $500,000 figure referring to previous crossings remained in the second paragraph.
  8. Heather MacBride says the correction fails to dispel the misleading impression that all the crossings cost AT $500,000.
  9. Mr Easther and Ms MacBride  also complain under principle (4) Comment and Fact which says a clear distinction must be drawn between facts and opinion. Mr Easther says Bernard Orsman’s “overall body of work on this topic” strays into opinion. Heather MacBride  argues Mr Orsman’s writing may be acceptable for a commentator but lacks the balance and accuracy expected of a reporter.
  10. Ms MacBride’s complaint covers 10 stories published by the NZ Herald on crossings between 25 January and the 13 February story. She says the series as a whole paints a one-sided view of AT incompetence.
  11. Ms MacBride asks, “Is this just sloppy research journalism or deliberate omission?”. She believes the latter. Bernard Orsman quoted from the email which contained the lower figure, so he had clearly seen that email. If he thought the 29 pedestrian crossings originally proposed in the $29,300,000 Pt Chevalier/Meola Road project would each cost $500,000, that would have added up to roughly half the total costs, something that was “clearly ludicrous given the major works being undertaken”.
  12. Ms MacBride says through these articles the $500,000 figure is repeatedly used but “did not accurately represent the expected costs of raised crossings”. She said the articles misled readers by failing to distinguish between the cost of the ordinary crossings and “signalised crossings” implying all crossings cost AT about $500,000.
  13. She points to a breakdown of costs in the first of the 10 articles she complains about as showing the $490,000 for a raised crossing in Williamson Ave included work on footpaths, lighting, drainage and traffic management. These details are omitted from later stories.
  14. Ms MacBride describes the crossing spend as “reasonably cheap measures to keep our families safe” and says the Pt Chevalier Community Liaison Group, of which she appears to be a member, feels betrayed by the NZ Herald ’s “campaign”.

The Response

  1. In response to Richard Easther and Linda Price’s complaints, the NZ Herald  says reporter Bernard Orsman has written a number of stories about the cost of pedestrian crossings, including one in Grey Lynn that cost $490,000, one in Three Kings that cost $463,000, and another planned for Blockhouse Bay at a cost of $300,000.
  2. The mayor has been critical of this spending and as a result AT launched a review of crossings under construction and changed its approach. This is newsworthy and it was in this context the reporter asked about the crossings planned for the Pt Chevalier/Meola Road project. AT released information “in stages” and “in multiple different emails”.
  3. The NZ Herald stresses this story was about AT’s decision to stick with 28 of the 29 crossings originally planned, despite its review. “It is important to note that the cost of the crossings was not the chief focus of the story."
  4. The reporter “overlooked” the figure of $19,000-$31,000 that came as part of those releases. The NZ Herald  “deeply regrets” the mistake but says had the reporter been aware he would have included that information.
  5. The NZ Herald  accepts the headline on the print story ‘AT pushes on with project building $500k crossings’ was wrong.
  6. At the Media Council’s request, the NZ Herald  confirmed there were two headlines for the online story: one headline was on the NZ Herald’s homepage; the other headline was for the story itself.
  7. The homepage headline referenced the $500,000 figure and was quickly corrected. The headline for the story itself ‘Auckland Transport building 28 pedestrian crossings on a project, despite review to cut numbers and costs’ was accurate and never changed.
  8. The mistakes were corrected “through a series of actions”. The NZ Herald was contacted by AT at 6.55am about the incorrect online homepage headline and it was changed within four minutes – at 6.59am, February 13. “The vast bulk of readers who read the story” had not yet seen it.
  9. AT and the NZ Herald communicated more during the day but it was not until 4pm that the NZ Herald editors “became aware that AT had provided estimates of the cost of the crossings”. They looked into the issue and added the estimates to the online story at 6.03pm. A correction was added to the foot of that story and it was edited to make clear the $500,000 figure related to other crossings.
  10. A print correction was published the next day on page A5, in the usual place where readers expect to find corrections. The NZ Herald also printed a column by journalist Russell Brown, who lives near Meola Road, on February 15 that “mentions the $500k error, AT’s estimates and provides a community voice”.
  11. The NZ Herald  says it was right to call the $19,000-$31,000 figures “estimates” because costs can change as a project goes on; AT was comfortable with that language. The NZ Herald also supplied a LGOIMA reply from AT dated April 12, in which the reporter asked for the evidence behind those estimates. AT replied, “This information cannot be provided because it does not exist”. It also says those estimates do not include traffic management or signal light costs, meaning the final cost “is likely to significantly increase”.
  12.  Unspecified “further investigations” were carried out and the NZ Herald was satisfied the reporter’s omission was not deliberate. They accept he should have been aware of the facts and do not excuse the seriousness of the error, but deny he was deliberately biased. They also point to criticism on this topic from Mayor Wayne Brown and other residents. The NZ Herald  met the AT Chief Executive and other leaders to explain and they were satisfied with the corrections and did not request an apology.
  13.  Regarding the complaint under Principle (4) the NZ Herald  says the stories in question are all clearly displayed as news stories. All comments in them are sourced and attributed, as is standard in news reporting. Neither the reporter nor the paper are campaigning or being biased.

The Discussion

  1. This is an extensive and complex web of complaints. The complainants are locals who know and care a lot about the project. They are clearly supportive of it and do not believe it deserves the criticism the NZ Herald  has reported. But the NZ Herald has every right to critique Auckland Council spending. Local government reportage is vital and often under-resourced; the complainants have every right to critique the criticism, but that does not mean the criticism is unfair or unbalanced. While they believe detailed information is lacking to the point of inaccuracy, news stories of this type are for a more general audience and will seldom provide the kind of details the complainants are calling for.
  2. While the Pt Chevalier Meola Road crossings are cheaper than the others reported on by Bernard Orsman, the AT reply to the LGOIMA request clearly shows $12.69m being spent on twenty-seven crossings in a single financial year. That averages roughly $470,000 per crossing. It is not inaccurate or unbalanced to report on that, follow-up the story and offer it as context when reporting on the next project, in this case the Pt Chevalier/Meola Road project.
  3. The Media Council also agrees with the NZ Herald  that the angle of the February 13 story is not the cost of the crossings, but rather AT’s decision to proceed with 28 of the planned 29 crossings between Pt Chevalier and Westmere after it had said it was looking to minimise costs. AT’s decision to press ahead with all but one of the crossings in the face of political criticism was undoubtedly newsworthy
  4. Having said that, any reporting needs to be accurate, fair and balanced. In this case it was not.
  5. To refer to the $500,000 crossings in the second paragraph of a story about AT’s decision to press ahead with 28 much cheaper crossings and to leave out the estimated cost of those cheaper crossings is “egregiously misleading”, as Mr Easther says. The NZ Herald is right to say the way this story was put together was a serious error.
  6. It’s telling that the story was so badly written and made the past revelations of $500,000 crossing so prominent that even the print headline writer got the wrong end of the stick. The original headlines on the online homepage and for the print story and standfirst were clearly inaccurate.
  7. There’s no doubt the original story and print headline both failed to meet Media Council accuracy principle. However the swiftness of the NZ Herald ’s correction process deserves to be applauded. The Council wants to encourage media to remedy any mistakes. Correcting the headline so quickly, doing further investigations and meeting with AT to discuss the error show they took it seriously. It is somewhat concerning it took much of the day to realise the $19,000-$31,000 figures were omitted. But that omission was still corrected the same day. The NZ Herald  had been talking to AT through the day, so AT had the chance to raise this issue.
  8. The complainants’ claims that the reporter deliberately chose to mislead readers and use false figures is perhaps the most serious accusation a journalist can face. If true it would likely lead to dismissal. The complainants provide no evidence to substantiate the claim and it is much more likely that the reporter made a mistake.
  9. We will deal with the balance of the reporter’s ongoing coverage when we discuss Heather MacBride’s complaint, but in this story AT is the source of the data used and is quoted multiple times. The story says the project has strong local support. The criticism from the mayor and a local resident is newsworthy. The complainants understandably don’t like the framing of the story given the misleading figures, but that is a problem with accuracy (as discussed above). The story does not lack balance. And while it’s not the same as ongoing balanced reporting, the NZ Herald  deserves some credit for quickly publishing Russell Brown’s column, critiquing its coverage.
  10. In sum, the original story was not acceptable, but it was promptly corrected, AT was consulted and the online story as it stands today does not breach any Media Council principles. So the complaints under principle (1) are not upheld.
  11. Turning to the complaints about the corrections, the print correction covered the main points at issue and, as the NZ Herald says, was printed where corrections are usually printed and where readers expect to find them. Corrections in New Zealand and around the world have never been as prominent as news stories and to suggest a correction should cover half a print page is unreasonable. A mistake with numbers, however misleading, does not require an apology to the people of Auckland. The Council notes AT did not request an apology.
  12. The Media Council acknowledges it is the NZ Herald’s decision as to where it places an online correction and it is common for media worldwide to place them at the base of stories. However some media are moving them to the top of stories and the NZ Herald  may like to consider that option.
  13. As swift as the online correction was, it failed to capture the gravity of the errors in the story. It only addresses the missing estimates without giving any context or explanation of the true facts. The homepage headline had been wrong and this was not acknowledged. Neither was the fact that the NZ Herald  says it also edited the story to “point out that the $500,000 figure – and criticism of it – related to other crossing projects”. A mistake of this magnitude deserves a more thorough correction if that correction is to own the error and be useful to future readers of the story understanding where the paper went wrong. Despite other parts of the correction process being managed well the Media Council upholds the complaints under Principle (12) Corrections.
  14. The article is clearly written and presented as a news story. The reporter has erred but that does not mean he is biased and he does not express an opinion in this story. The complaints under principle (4) Comment and Fact are not upheld.
  15. Turning to Heather MacBride’s wider complaint, a review of the ten stories shows the reporter has uncovered a significant issue that deserves reportage and debate. While Ms MacBride  questions the accuracy of the stories, AT has given interviews and information for these stories and has not challenged their accuracy. As per the table at the top of this ruling, the NZ Herald  has uncovered significant spending, political leaders have criticised it and AT is trying to “minimise costs and value engineer better outcomes”. AT’s Chief Executive defends the importance of safe crossings but promises these street improvements will be delivered “in a more cost-effective and pragmatic way”. Rigorous, dogged scrutiny of spending by large public bodies is to be encouraged and is something every city needs from its media outlets. The Media Council does not want to undermine such reporting, especially when the organisation in question has admitted it needs to change (even if the complainants oppose that change).
  16. AT’s CE does not challenge the $500,000 figure as inaccurate. It seems clear from the LGOIMA answers that signalled crossings are costing that much and questions around the $19,000-$31,000 figures remain. The Media Council notes that given the work is not yet complete, calling those figures estimates is entirely appropriate. The series of stories, apart from the failing discussed in the February 13 article, are not inaccurate.
  17. On balance, the complainant does not like the many critical views reported, but they come from public representatives and numerous affected locals, who have a right to be heard. Taken as individual stories, the articles all raise newsworthy issues. Mayoral criticism, cracked driveways, noise complaints and the rest are all legitimate local stories holding a powerful organisation to account for an approach that they have acknowledged needed to change.
  18. However, the complainants reflect a dissenting view and the Media Council does not see their arguments reflected in Bernard Orsman’s stories. Where clearly a range of community views exist, the reporter is not reporting some of those views and is whipping the horse in just one direction. AT does get plenty of chance to comment, although it is notable that when the Chief Executive went on the record with the NZ Herald his quotes were carried at the bottom of the story. From the stories supplied AT did not get a story angled on its view. The only story leading with AT was when the CE unhelpfully refused to be interviewed in person by the NZ Herald.
  19. In multiple stories the reporter has chosen to merely cut and paste criticisms reported in earlier stories, while giving less context around the spending and fewer words about how the money is being spent. The justification is that these stories hold a major public body to account; to fulfil that role the NZ Herald needs to do a better job explaining how and where the money is being spent, laying out the pros and cons of that spending and the crossings themselves, and presenting a range of views. Voices presenting the arguments made by the complainants do not appear.
  20. The NZ Herald says its coverage of this issue will continue, which means there is an opportunity for better balance over time. It is hoped these complaints and the errors the complainants have exposed will mean the NZ Herald provides readers with better balanced coverage over time and improved accuracy and detail when it comes to public spending on infrastructure. By a fine margin, the positives of these stories outweigh their imperfections, so the Media Council does not uphold Heather MacBride’s complaint under Principle (1).
  21. Decision: The complaints are upheld under principle (12). The complaints are not upheld under principles (1), (4) and (6).

Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Hank Schouten, Rosemary Barraclough, Tim Watkin, Ben France-Hudson, Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, Marie Shroff, Alison Thom, Richard Pamatatau.

Council member Katrina Bennett declared a conflict of interest and withdrew from the discussion.


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