The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Stephen Rice against articles published in The Star (Dunedin’s weekly community newspaper published by Allied Press) and its online edition. The same article was published in the Otago Daily Times online (ODT Online) but not in the print edition of the newspaper (also published by Allied Press).

The articles from which the complaint originated were identical stories highlighting a public meeting organised for the following week by a Fairfield resident to discuss the feasibility of the return of the Mosgiel/Dunedin commuter train service.

The articles were accompanied by a photograph of the meeting organizer and two railway officials looking over a “refurbished rail car at Hillside workshops”.

Therein were several references to “rail cars” both in direct speech attributed to the Hillside Workshops operations manager, and in reported speech.

The articles state that “the type of rail cars that were being refurbished for rail in Auckland and Wellington” would be suitable for Dunedin.

The articles also refer to “light rail cars” as being ideal for the conditions (narrow track gauge)

The Initial Complaint
The complainant in the first instance (on 19 November 2008) complained to the editor of the Otago Daily Times (responsible for all publications).

His complaint in essence was that the articles were misleading because the photographs and their captions were misleading. The photographs accompanying the articles were of locomotive powered passenger carriages, yet the term “railcar” dominates the text; therefore the illustrations were misleading as to what railcars actually look like.

The Response
In his response to the complainant, the editor agreed that an error had been made in describing the carriage in the photograph as a rail car. “The websites will be corrected accordingly”.

However, the editor said that he and his staff did not agree that the carriage “in no way resembles a rail car”. Other rail experts have said that a fully fledged rail car would not look dissimilar to what was shown in the photograph.

The editor’s response concluded with an offer to Mr Rice to write a Letter to the editor for consideration for publication.

The Extended Complaint to the Press Council
Mr Rice then took up his complaint with the Press Council. As well as his initial complaint, he added further technical points which he had taken considerable time to establish in seeking further information about the accuracy of the articles:

The nub of these further complaints is that the incorrect use of basic railway terminology in communications by rail officials to news media outlets is disturbing and every effort should be made to get it right.

The Response
The acting editor, in responding to the complaint to the Press Council agreed that too much reliance had been placed on “expert” opinion. However, the errors were substantially technical in nature, though he noted they should be avoided where possible.

In his final response to the complaint, the editor pointed out that in regards to the initial complaint, the photograph was taken with the full co-operation and under the direction of Hillside Engineering Group experts; that the captioning error was acknowledged and corrected; that the photograph was immediately removed from the archived ODT online article; and that the caption was altered on the archived online version of The Star.

The editor also pointed out that Mr Rice’s complaint to the Press Council differs from the original complaint about the illustration and caption, and raised matters not contained in his original formal complaint to the newspaper.

There is often a tension between articles which include technical matters, and the need to make a story accessible to the general public. In this case the newspaper relied on railways staff for the terms used and the information provided.

When Mr Rice initially complained to the editor, steps were taken to rectify errors around the illustrations used. He was also offered the opportunity to put his concerns in a Letter to the Editor.

This article was essentially a piece to highlight the upcoming meeting to discuss the future of commuter trains between Mosgiel and Dunedin. The headline “Meeting to Discuss Return of Mosgiel Train” indicates the major thrust of the article. The errors were incidental to the main thrust and did not detract from the purpose of the article. The newspaper acted promptly in dealing with Mr Rice’s original complaint and in correcting the archived versions of the articles. They also offered him the opportunity to write a Letter to the Editor. That Mr Rice has extended his complaint, taking considerable time and trouble to furnish material to back it, takes the complaint into areas that were not the identified originally. The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, John Gardner, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.


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