Case Number: 2754

Council Meeting: MARCH 2019

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Children and Young People
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Headlines and Captions
Unfair Coverage


(1) Ross Horsburgh (Sydney, Australia) objects to Stuff’s refusal to take down a January 21 storyStudents at US rally who mocked Native Americans also did the haka.

(2) He argues that the story breaches Principle 1 – Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, Principle 3 – Children and Young People, Principle 6 – Headlines and captions and Principle 12 – Corrections.

(3) The story reported that students from a US Catholic School were in Washington DC at an unspecified rally, and mocked Native Americans who had been part of a march.

(4) The story stated that some students, wearing Make America Great Again hats and sweatshirts, surrounded the Native Americans, chanting, laughing and jeering.

(5) Marcus Frejo, a Native American, is quoted as saying the students also did a haka. Frejo and another man began drumming and singing, and the students calmed down. The students are not quoted in the Jan 21 story, but The Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School is – they were critical of the students.

(6) The story says an 11-minute video of the confrontation shows the haka and students chanting. This video is not part of the story. A 59 second video is, and does not appear to show a haka, but shows students, and focusses on one student standing in front of a Native American who is drumming. The story says videos (it does not specify which version) prompted a torrent of outrage online. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School apologised for the students’ behaviour.

The Complaint

(7) Mr Horsburgh says facts have since emerged that prove that many facts in the article were false, including that there was no haka or mocking of Native Americans by the students. He has asked Stuff to remove the article. Stuff has refused.

(8) Mr Horsburgh said there had been dangerous reactions – including a Gizmodo reporter calling for the students to be attacked - to what was fake news.

(9) Stuff’s refusal to take the story down was “shocking” and Stuff was deliberately misleading people.

The Response

(10) Stuff deputy editor Keith Lynch responded by stating the story was one of several published on the widely publicised incident, as part of a syndication deal with the highly reputable Associated Press (AP).

(11) He says the news event was complex, and notes that in developing news situations the first available information is rarely perfect.

(12) Mr Lynch acknowledges that “as is often the case with breaking news, the early reporting lacked the full context.However the video could reasonably be interpreted as showing students mocking Nathan Phillips”.

(13) The boys’ own school interpreted the video in this manner and apologised, Mr Lynch says. He notes that in reviewing the story, Stuff added “a witness says” attribution so that a headline readStudents at US rally who mocked Native Americans also did the haka, a witness says. (The Media Council notes that the same attribution has also been added to the story’s introduction).

(14) Mr Lynch says Stuff took a proactive approach to ensuring its audience were served with more in-depth reporting on the issue. He notes the Media Council states balance can be “judged on a number of stories, rather than a single report” in certain long running cases.

(15) He also notes it is debatable whether this is a long running issue, but the nature of the story meant the entire story could not be told in the first reports

(16) Links to four follow-up stories are included in the Stuff reply, and provide context that suggests there was “faux outrage” at the incident. The student in the video is also quoted in one story.

(17) Mr Lynch says “ultimately Mr Horsburgh asked us to remove the story because it was fake news. It is not fake news … to delete the first reports on any major news event – even if it did lack the context that ongoing reporting adds – would not serve our audience. Maintenance of the historical archive showing how events were initially reported provides a greater service”.

The Discussion


(18) Principle 1 – Accuracy, Fairness and Balance – not upheld.

The content of the original story, based on the information and context available at the time, was reasonable. The video could be interpreted as reflecting the tone of the story. There is no comment from the students themselves, but the students’ school was contacted for comment. The school could reasonably be expected to provide context and comment on behalf of the students – the fact the school condemned the students’ actions rather than defend them should not distract from the fact that the comment was sought to balance the story.

(19) Principle 3 – Children and Young People – not upheld.

Other than a generic reference to young people, the complaint lacks argument as to the breach of this principle and the Media Council can find no reason to uphold the complaint.

(20) Principle 6 – Headlines and captions – not upheld.

Based on the original publication of the story, the Media Council can find no reason to uphold the complaint.

(21) Principle 12 – Corrections – not upheld

Principle 12 states: A publication’s willingness to correct errors enhances its credibility and, often, defuses complaint. Significant errors should be promptly corrected with fair prominence. In some circumstances it will be appropriate to offer an apology and a right of reply to an affected person or persons.

(22) Stuff has acknowledged that the original story lacked context, and that subsequent stories provided this context. However the original story remains online and does not provide any of the context that emerged later.

(23) This is not, strictly speaking, an error that requires correction. However, newspapers also have a duty to provide clarity.Stuff has a duty to provide that context, within the original story. Mr Lynch argues that Stuff provided subsequent context through four follow-up stories highlighted in Stuff’s complaint response

(24) The Media Council agrees these stories provide valuable context and recommends that Stuff add them to the January 21 story via Stuff’s “Read more” links to other stories. The Media Council also recommends that a notation is added to the top of the story (above the introduction) that says: “Subsequent to Stuff’s publication of this January 21, 2019 Associated Press (AP) story, fresh context emerged within other stories published. That context is accessible via Read More story links embedded in this story, at the request of the NZ Media Council”.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Marie Shroff, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay, Tim Watkin and Tracy Watkins.


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