Case Number: 3436

Council Meeting: 30 October 2023

Decision: No Grounds to Proceed

Publication: Stuff

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Headlines and Captions

Ruling Categories: Court Reporting

Stuff published a story on September 19, 2023, headlined Former army sergeant who attempted to sexually assault woman dodges jail by ‘fine margin’. This was a report of the sentencing in the Auckland District Court of a man who pleaded guilty to two charges of indecent assault and assault with intent to commit sexual violation. The first sentence of the article described the man as having served as a sergeant in the South Korean Army.

Terry Petersen complained the headline was misleading as most readers would immediately think the offender had been a member of the New Zealand Defence Force. He said there was no indication military service was a factor in the offending or had any bearing on the sentence. It was therefore irrelevant, and the headline should not have mentioned it.

In his view the headline was click-bait and malicious, showed a potential bias against military personnel, lacked fairness and misled readers by deliberately including mention of irrelevant military service and omitting South Korean Army.

He also noted the New Zealand Herald’s story on the same court appearance did not mention the offender’s earlier military rank in its headline.

Stuff responded that the article clearly said the offender was a sergeant in the South Korean Army. This was said in the first paragraph of the story. It rejected the assertion his military service was irrelevant. It was a statement of fact and the report was an accurate record of what went before a judge in an open court.

Stuff disagreed that the headline was clickbait. It encapsulated what the story was about and everything in it was accurate. It also rejected the claim it was malicious and said this was straight court reporting.

The Media Council notes the headline was not inaccurate.  Headlines are expected to convey the substance or a key element of the story that follows. The offender was a sergeant and the story clearly says he served with the South Korean Army. His service with the South Korean Army was information provided to the Court and as such it was reportable. Occupation and work records are routinely provided to help judges understand an offender even though it may or may not be directly relevant to the offence for which the person is charged.

The Council adds that it was irrelevant that another paper chose to report the story differently and that its headline did not mention the offender had been a sergeant.

Decision: There were insufficient grounds to proceed.


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