ALEXANDER WILLS AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 3324

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2022

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Photographs and Graphics

Ruling Categories: Misleading

Overview

On 21 May 2022 Stuff ‘s website reported on a developing story about a protest on Auckland Harbour Bridge headlined: Eleven arrested after protestors stop cars on Auckland Harbour Bridge, assaulted Police. The complaint, under Principle (1) is not upheld.

The Article

The story was updated several times as the incident played out. All versions contained, at the end of the story, a photograph of damage to windows of a police van (not of the whole van). An earlier version of the story said it was unclear when damage to the van had occurred. The later version of the story, the one complained of, said below the photograph: “A police van on site had damage to it, though police confirm the damage was not caused by protestors.”

The Complaint

Mr Wills complains that the Stuff story contains a large image of damage to a police van that had nothing to do with the protest being covered. Although the story says the damage was not done by protestors, the use of the photograph was “to try and infer that the protestors caused the damage. If they felt a damaged Police van was so important, they could always have run a separate story on it, but to include it with a large photo in this article is clearly an act of deliberate deception.” Mr Wills says Stuff knew very well the power of a photograph and inference. The complainant says this is manipulation by Stuff to suit their own agenda, and a breach of Media Council Principle (1), Accuracy, Fairness and Balance which says: “Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission.” 

The Response

Stuff responded initially that the photo was taken under normal news gathering circumstances. Their reporting was updated over several hours as events unfolded and fresh information became available. The first version which included the photograph, was accompanied by text saying it was not yet known whether the damage was connected to the protest, and that Police had been approached for comment. Police confirmed about three hours later that the damage was not connected to the protest but sustained in an earlier, unrelated incident. The text of the story was updated accordingly on the same day: “A police van on site had damage to it, though police confirmed the damage was not caused by protestors”.

The Editor says that the alternative, of removing that part of the story and the photograph, “would not have explained to those who had been following the story of the day for three hours what had happened with the van, why the detail about the damaged police van had been removed, and importantly, whether the protestors were responsible or not.” He rejects Mr Wills assertions about Stuff’s impartiality or intent to deceive. The editor says the reporting was “responsible, fair, factual and entirely transparent”.

The Discussion

The Council notes and understands Mr Wills’ view that an undue inference could be drawn by a quick reader scan of the story: that the photograph of the damage to a police van links to the protestors. Stuff’s explanation is this was a major developing story, the photograph of the van was always at the end of the article and was accompanied by text, explaining initially that it was unclear if protestors had done the damage, and then confirming that they had not. Less convincing is Stuff’s assertion that the photograph had to be retained in the story to make sure readers were clear what had happened in relation to the police van. Mr Wills is undoubtedly correct in asserting the “power of a photograph and inference” in this case the possible impression that the protestors most likely damaged the van, in the context of the headline and article. The Council notes that once the Police had confirmed the protestors were not responsible for the damage to the police van, the photograph became largely irrelevant to the story. Stuff had options: to alter the caption to make it clear the protestors did not cause the damage; or to take down the photograph. If the photograph had been removed, a simple text explanation could have been given, that a previously published photograph of damage to a police van had been taken down as it was not related to the protestors’ actions.

This is a finely balanced decision, but the Council believes that the complaint does not reach the threshold of a breach of Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance. The story was major (leading on all major news sites) and fast-moving and is a good example of how active news reporting online can keep the public well informed as a significant news event develops. Around thirty police staff, a number of police vehicles and a police helicopter were involved in this major incident on State Highway 1; police negotiated with the protestor group, but protestors did not comply with apparently agreed conditions. The photograph was at the foot of the article and was always accompanied by an explanation, which was quickly updated during the day including when police confirmed the protestors had not caused the damage.

Given that the story was a news report of a fast-moving live event and could not be said to be substantially factually inaccurate unfair or unbalanced, on balance the complaint under Principle (1) is not upheld.

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

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