SHAKES AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 3298

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2022

Decision: Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance

Ruling Categories: Damaging To Reputation
Schools, Identification of

Overview

[1] Paul Shakes, Chair of the Bethlehem College Board of Trustees complains about an article first headlined “Death threats, violence and sexual shaming: allegations of abuse at Christian school” and later headlined “School launch investigation after alleged threats made to students supporting LGBTQIA+ community” published by Stuff on 13 June 2022. The complaint falls to be decided under Media Council Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance. The complaint is upheld for unfairness as a result of Stuff’s failure to seek comment from the College before the story was first published.

The Article

[2] The first version of the article begins by focusing on a demonstration at the College by a group of students taking part in the International Day of Silence against bullying. During this demonstration the article stated that those students were the subject of “violence, death threats and verbal attacks”. The abuse included chants of “kill the gays”. A parent of a student was reported as stating that “… those taking part in the protest had received verbal death threats, “obscene heckling” and “sexual shaming” comments from other teenage students at the school.”

[3] The article proceeds to cover a lot of ground, drawing on statements made by former students, parents of students and a campaigner for queer rights, Shaneel Lal (they, them), to describe current events at the school and previous experiences. In this context, the article also references Lal’s views on the College’s “Statement of Belief” and its description of marriage.

[4] Relevant to the complaint were quotes from Shaneel Lal that “hundreds of people had contacted” them with stories about the College, that others had contacted them about the demonstration and that students were chanting “kill the gays” at those participating.

[5] The article concluded by drawing on a “statement to media” from Paul Shakes, Chair of the Bethlehem College Board of Trustees that spoke to the special character of the school and its commitments to that character through, among other things the College’s Statement of Belief. It did not provide any context as to when or why this statement to the media had been made.

[6] The final version of the article was published on the same day and has a time stamp of 18:50:12. The only substantive change is that the final version includes statements from Paul Shakes in relation to the demonstration. These note that an investigation had been launched and that it had concluded there were no chants against the protestors (although the investigation was also continuing) nor was there an opposition group of students present (although he also accepted that “some other students responding to the protest did not meet the standards of behaviour we require of our school community”). He stressed that bullying is not tolerated at the school and that students are expected to act in good faith and show civility and tolerance for differing views. 

[7] Mr Shakes also said that he was unaware of any complaints relating to the claims made by Lal and that the school was committed to providing a safe environment for everyone at the College.

[8] The final version also clarified that the media statement referred to in the first version (relating to the College’s Statement of Belief) was a message that had been posted to Facebook the previous weekend.

The Complaint

[9] Paul Shakes, Chair of the Bethlehem College Board of Trustees complains about the statements that:

  • there were “death threats, chants, violence and sexual shaming”; and
  • “The abuse included chants of ‘kill the gays’”.

[10] He notes that an internal investigation carried out by the College “found the allegations [Stuff] published were false”.

[11] He complains:

  • That that the author does not appear to have spoken to anyone actually present or verified the statements;
  • It was a breach of Stuff’s code of ethics to report these allegations as if they were true and verified, when they were false and unverified;
  • The College was given no opportunity to comment before the article was published; and
  • The College was offered no confirmation, beyond an assurance by Stuff, of the claims by Shaneel Lal that hundreds of students had contacted them.

[12] He states that on Monday 13 June the College asked Stuff to correct the article so that it adhered to Stuff’s code of ethics and that Stuff agreed to remove the article pending a comment from the College in reply. However, the article was not removed and was only amended, several hours later, after the College released a public statement about the protest.

[13] The article has caused significant damage to the College’s reputation and the claims have been repeated by other news outlets and in other pieces under the Stuff banner. 

[14] In his final response he reiterates his complaint and rejects Stuff’s assertion that the article was treated as a live news event (as it was published three days after the demonstration). He also provides an email from a senior editor at Stuff which states “I understand that [the] Tauranga Bureau Chief … and you have had a discussion today and that the story is being retracted until you have a chance to respond property. I will leave it with … to handle at this stage.” That email was sent at 3:28 pm.


The Response

[15] Stuff begins by outlining various background matters that provide some context about its interest in the College and that led to the publication of this article.

[16] This context led to Stuff treating the story, which it appears to consider included the broader issues, as a live news event. Stuff has subsequently published a number of related pieces (as have other news outlets), which have not been complained about. Over this period hundreds of comments began appearing on social media, also alleging discrimination and trauma.

[17] Stuff also provides some more information in relation to the aspect of the article focusing on the College’s Statement of Belief. However, as that point is of limited relevance to the complaint, we do not go into detail here.

[18] Turning to the complaint itself, Stuff rejects the complaint that the claims in the article were not verified. The reporter did verify the claims by speaking to students who were present. They were unnamed given concerns they held about publicly speaking out.

[19] Some discrepancies between the College’s internal investigation and Stuff’s reporting are to be expected, partly because Stuff understands that its sources did not speak to the College’s investigators because they were scared.

[20] Stuff states that it did verify the claims made by Shaneel Lal, noting that it has viewed hundreds of public comments both on Lal’s Instagram account and on a petition calling for an inquiry into discrimination at the College. In any event, it confirmed the numbers with Lal, who stood by their statement.

[21] Stuff maintains the article was fair and balanced as, when the story first went live, the College had already made a substantial public comment about allegations of discrimination at the school and this was detailed extensively in the story (in the context of the Facebook message addressing issues in relation to the Statement of Belief). As soon as additional comment was provided by Paul Shakes, the story was updated.

[22] Stuff does not address the question of whether it had agreed to remove the article pending that comment.

[23] Overall, Stuff states that its focus has been on accurately and fairly reporting the stories of vulnerable young people, while also being mindful of their safety and confidentiality concerns. Bethlehem College has had ample chance to respond to criticisms raised, and there is no breach of Media Council Principles.

The Discussion

[24] This complaint falls to be decided under Media Council Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, which states:

Publications 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.

[25] We do not agree that the inclusion of the statements complained of was a breach of Principle 1 and this aspect of the complaint is not upheld. The statements are clearly attributed to both “A parent of a student at Bethlehem College” and Shaneel Lal. They are clearly reported as the opinions of those quoted and it is common journalistic practice to report comments in this way. This makes it clear that what is being reported is the opinion of the person spoken to, not that they are necessarily ‘true’.

[26] The Media Council accepts the College’s internal investigation suggests the statements may not be correct, but that on its own is not conclusive. As Stuff points out it is very possible some relevant information was not before the investigators. The Media Council is in no position to pass any comment on this.

[27] The Media Council also accepts Stuff’s statement that the claims were verified by the reporter and that it was unnecessary for Stuff to provide any confirmation to the College regarding how Stuff had verified any of the claims in the article. 

[28] The complainant considers that the College ought to have been given an opportunity to comment before the first version of the article was published. His focus appears to be on the aspects of the article that reported on the demonstration.

[29] We note that the emails provided tend to suggest that Stuff made an offer to retract the article pending a further comment from the College, which indicates that it saw some need to fix the lack of balance, and it is to be commended for that. However, Stuff in its response, appears to view the article in a broader context of other matters in relation to discrimination at the school that were occurring contemporaneously. It considers that reference to a ‘media statement’ the College had recently issued addressing these broader points was sufficient in the context of the article, which addressed a range of issues at the College, not just the demonstration. Stuff notes that as soon as it received an additional comment the story was updated.

[30] The Media Council considers that Stuff ought to have given the College an opportunity to comment before the first version of the article was published. The article raised a number of very specific, and potentially shocking, claims about the behaviour of one group of students at the College against another at the school. The demonstration itself was in support of the Day of Silence (which is aimed at spreading awareness about the silencing effects of bullying against the LGBTQIA+ community). Clearly, there would be interest in this article.  We accept the article occurred in a broader context.  However, it was predominantly an article about alleged harassment at the demonstration.  In this situation, the College had an appropriate expectation of being asked for comment on the specific allegations in advance of publication.

[32] We consider that it was not enough for Stuff to rely on a statement by the College posted on Facebook addressing general issues, which was all that was published to give balance.  It should have gone to the college directly for comment before publication, and if comment was made as it seems likely it would have been, include that comment in the article.  Given the hours the article remained unchanged on the Stuff website, the later changes following the College’s public statement were not sufficient to defuse the unfairness and lack of balance.

[33] The article did not give a fair voice to the opposition view, when fairness required that. The Media Council upholds this aspect of the complaint

Decision: The complaint is upheld under Principle 1 for unfairness and lack of balance as a result of the failure to seek comment prior to publication.

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

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