Case Number: 3409

Council Meeting: 26 June 2023

Decision: Upheld

Publication: Wairarapa Times-Age

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Headlines and Captions

Ruling Categories: Defamation/Damaging To Reputation
Apology and Correction Sought


  1. Sandra Kelman complained on behalf of Masterton Medical about a photoshopped picture published on the front page of the Wairarapa Times-Age and online. The story was headlined Who are you going to call? The heading was part of a digitally manipulated picture depicting the medical centres sign and another that read: NO MORE NEW PATIENTS.  The complaint is made under NZMC Principles (1) Accuracy Fairness and Balance and (11) Photographs and Graphics. The Council also considered the complaint under Principle (12) Corrections. The complaint is upheld.


The Article

  1. The story, that appeared in the paper’s online and print editions on April 24, 2023, is about how a shortage of doctors has forced the region's biggest medical provider to close its doors to new patients.

The Complaint

  1. Ms Kelman says the photoshopped picture used an “outdated and unauthorised” Masterton Medical sign and an unknown sign saying, "No More New Patients", which Masterton Medical has never used.
  2. She said the effect of the graphic was to suggest that Masterton Medical had erected a sign outside their premises saying “No More New Patients''.  This was not the case and never had been.  “It is of grave concern that the Wairarapa Times-Age has technically manipulated images to mislead readers.”
  3. The organisation had provided commentary to the newspaper “in good faith” and to contribute to a “factually correct article”.  “We feel very let down by the sensationalist imagery and feel it has damaged our reputation. The Wairarapa Times-Age had a responsibility to print an accurate, fair and balanced article. The images contradict that.”
  4. As a consequence of this the medical centre had advised the Wairarapa Times-Age that it would not provide comment in the future.
  5. In reply to the newspaper’s response, Ms Kelman said Masterton Medical remained of the view that the newspaper had breached Principle (11).  After publication “several patients” contacted the centre concerned “our doors were being closed”.
  6. There was no issue with the substance of the article: “The grounds for our complaint have been that the image of the fictitious sign was misrepresentative and misinformed the public”. 
  7. In conjunction with the paper, the medical centre had agreed on a mutually acceptable clarification and apology but that had not been published because the centre had not withdrawn its complaint to the Media Council.  “We were surprised by this as we did not see one action precluding the other.”

The Response

  1. The Wairarapa Times-Age said the complaint was “disproportionate and unreasonable” but the Wairarapa Times-Age accepted “an image used to illustrate a story was incorrectly labelled”.
  2. It was disappointing that Ms Kelman went to the Media Council before a mutually acceptable resolution was found. 
  3. The error was attributed to an inexperienced designer who put the front page together.  The Wairarapa Times-Age immediately offered Masterton Medical an apology in relation to the image only. This apology has not been published because the editor did not want to get the publication into a “double jeopardy” situation.
  4. The medical centre had not complained about the accuracy of the story. The quotes in the story were obtained from Ms Kelman herself, who also acknowledged in email correspondence that the story was accurate. 
  5. “The Wairarapa Times-Age does not accept that the message provided by the photoshopped graphic was incorrect, as it correctly states Masterton Medical was not accepting new patients – information provided by Ms Kelman herself.”
  6. The paper did not accept that “since it was described as a photograph, some readers might have thought there was a sign outside Masterton Medical to this effect”.
  7. Masterton Medical has a statement on its website that it is not accepting new enrolments, reinforcing the accuracy of the story, including the statement on the graphic.
  8. Sandra Kelman did not seek any clarification or correction regarding the image in her first email to the reporter.  Ms Kelman instead said Masterton Medical  would be (a) complaining to the Media Council and (b) refusing to provide comment to the Wairarapa Times-Age for any future stories, and (c) told the reporter not to contact her again, which closed down a line of communication.
  9. The Wairarapa Times-Age strongly disputes Masterton Medical  has suffered reputational damage as a result of its publication of this story. The facts in the story were provided by Ms Kelman herself and were accurately reported.
  10. If Masterton Medical experienced reputational damage or if the fact that Masterton Medical not accepting new patient enrolments had been distressing for some unenrolled individuals, as Ms Kelman stated,  then that is the result of Masterton Medical’s staff shortages and not the Wairarapa Times-Age accurately reporting the situation.
  11. The Wairarapa Times-Age rejected Ms Kelman’s accusation that the Wairarapa Times-Age intended to “mislead readers”. Instead, not including a credit clearly indicating the image had been photoshopped was an unfortunate oversight by a new designer who has since received guidance about the importance of such labels.
  12. At no point did the Wairarapa Times-Age tell Ms Kelman that it would only print the clarification if the complaint to the Media Council was dropped.
  13. The decision not to run the clarification in the next day’s paper was influenced by Ms Kelman stating that – despite there being no issue with the accuracy of the story itself – Masterton Medical would only provide comment for future stories if the organisation had copy approval.
  14. Ms Kelman also demanded the clarification be printed on the front page (which was not possible, as the next issue featured an ANZAC Day cover).
  15. Although Ms Kelman stated several times that the article was accurate, it was not clear whether there might be a further complaint about the story itself. This made it difficult to address the complaint, as the Wairarapa Times-Age was unsure what its entire scope would be.
  16. The paper decided that it would be best to wait until all issues were sorted out before publishing a clarification, rather than having to revisit the matter several times.

The Discussion

  1. The complainant does not have any issues with the accuracy or balance in the story, therefore that part of the complaint, under Principle (1)  is not upheld.   In terms of  fairness, the Council does not believe that mislabeling a digitally altered image constitutes an uphold on those grounds. It accepts the mistake was a genuine error. The Council believes a complaint about mishandling a digital image is best considered under Principle (11).
  2. However the Council has sympathy for the complainant and understands that both the medical centre and readers may well have been shocked to see a sign saying “No more new patients” depicted alongside a genuine medical centre sign on the front page of the local paper.  The inserted sign together with the heading appears to be a rude, verging on arrogant, announcement to members of the public in need of help, turning them away. This is  quite contrary to the regretful explanations given by Masterton Medical in the body of the article about its problem with a lack of staff.  The inserted sign shows Masterton Medical in a bad light
  3. The sign in the photograph looked real and together with the heading Who are you going to call it starkly reinforced the thrust of the story - staff shortages. The information is not inaccurate, but the image or symbols used to convey the news are in themselves false. The addition of the photoshopped sign adds a dramatic element to the story while lending verisimilitude to the idea that the centre is so overrun with new patient requests that a crude sign has had to be erected outside the centre to keep the hordes of sick people away.  That is not the case.
  4. Principle (11) Photographs and Graphics, states in part that: Editors should take care in photographic and image selection and treatment. Any technical manipulation that could mislead readers should be noted and explained. 
  5. The newspaper is in clear breach of this principle.  While the Council agrees with the Wairarapa Times-Age that the story was fair, balanced and accurate, the misrepresentation of the front page illustration is not something that can be overlooked or downplayed. Further, the Council is surprised that the paper attributed the error (and the basis of the complaint) to an incorrectly labelled photograph credit which the Council believes somewhat misses the point. As Principle (11) states, technical manipulation that could mislead readers should be noted and explained. The Council believes that the Wairarapa Times-Age’s suggestion that the word “Graphic” should have been used instead of “PHOTO/FILE” is inadequate. Readers deserve better, especially when the photo/illustration appears to be real and not digitally enhanced.   Suitable wording such as “Digitally altered Image” and an explanation, if deemed necessary, about the enhancement should be carried in the caption where it can be easily seen and not solely in the small photo credit space where it could be missed.  The complaint is upheld under Principle (11). 
  6. The Council also considered this complaint under Principle (12) Corrections, which states in part: A publication’s willingness to correct errors enhances its credibility and often defuses complaints. Significant errors should be promptly corrected with fair prominence.
  7. The Wairarapa Times-Age had an opportunity to correct the illustration in print as it did online but chose not to while a complaint was before the council.  The Council’s view is that the newspaper’s readers should have been informed of the error at roughly the same time as the online audience.  Whether or not the correction and apology diffused the complaint, it was incumbent on the Wairarapa Times-Age to do the right thing by its audience and the medical centre. It chose not to and that is unfortunate. It is also unfortunate that relations appear to have broken down between the parties leading to Ms Kelman demanding to see copy before publication for future stories and refusing to be interviewed by the reporter who wrote the story who is entirely blameless as far as the complaint goes.
  8. News organisations are rightfully reluctant to have copy reviewed by interview subjects. The Wairarapa Times-Age is right to refuse this request. The Council encourages both parties to learn from the experience, wipe the slate clean and start again. The complaint is upheld under Principle (12)
  9. The complaint is upheld under Principles (11) and (12) and not upheld under Principle (1).

Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Hank Schouten, Rosemary Barraclough, Tim Watkin, Jonathan Mackenzie, Jo Cribb, Marie Shroff, Alison Thom, Reina Vaai, Richard Pamatatau.


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