TOMEK PIETKIEWICZ AGAINST WAIKATO TIMESIntroduction
The Press Council has not upheld, by a majority of 8:1, a complaint by Tomek Pietkiewicz against the Waikato Times over a news story concerning Fairfield College.
On November 22, 2011 the Waikato Times lead story covered an incident in which a number of Fairfield College students were taken to hospital following what the newspaper speculated was drug-taking involving ecstasy. The headline read: Drug puts students in hospital and carried a photograph of Fairfield College entrance showing the name of the school.
The newspaper reported six students of the college were taken to hospital following an overdose of ecstasy and noted that it was another high-profile incident to shed a negative light on the school which had received an ‘appalling ERO review’. It quoted a Waikato DHB spokeswoman speculating that the pupils’ behaviour led hospital staff to suspect that an illegal drug had been taken. No source was given for the newspaper’s identification of the drug as ecstasy. The article also quoted the chairman of the college’s board saying the incident rang alarm bells and the college principal saying it was the first time he’d heard of such an event at Fairfield College.
Mr Pietkiewicz complains that the story breaches Press Council principles relating to accuracy, fairness and balance and also breaches the principle of confidentiality. His initial complaint to the editor of the newspaper was diverted by a spam-detecting filter, a fact for which the editor subsequently apologised. Mr Pietkiewicz is the originator of an online petition against “media persecution and sensationalism of Fairfield College” and is a former pupil and a teacher.
His complaint against the principle of accuracy relates to the incorrect identification of the drug involved as ecstasy. He argues that as the drug taken by the pupils was later named as BZP the original article was incorrect.
In relation to the principles of fairness and balance he argues that the article was unbalanced in the negative light it shone upon the school and by revisiting other adverse stories about the school, the newspaper failed to meet the need for balance.
Mr Pietkiewicz supplied a number of examples of positive aspects of the college which could have been used to put a more positive light on it and by which the newspaper might have achieved balance.
Mr Pietkiewicz criticised the “weak” investigative processes behind stories about Fairfield College, argued that social issues plague all schools today and queried the ERO report process. He also asked whether the newspaper had ever been into the school to gather and publish independent views from pupils and the community.
He requested that the newspaper acknowledge the impact of the negative articles on both the college and Waikato communities with a formal apology to the school which he also requested be published in the newspaper.
The editor argues that the story was in the public interest and would have been of concern to every parent with a child at the college. He acknowledges that the drug was incorrectly named, a fact that the newspaper addressed as soon as it had that information.
In relation to issues of fairness and balance, the editor supplied a follow-up article which was published two days after the initial article. In this article Mr Pietkiewicz and several pupils of the school drew attention to positive aspects of the college’s record and explained why they thought the college deserved more positive reviews.
The editor argued that the school was shown in a bad light because it does not enjoy a good reputation and has featured widely in national media for a variety of previous incidents.
The editor disagreed that the overall coverage of the college was needlessly negative and stated that in the past two years a total of 20 positive letters to the editor and stories had been published.
Discussion and Decision
The drug incident was a genuine news story of significant prominence with relevance to the local community as well as the wider New Zealand public. As a news story it does not require a balance of “good and bad” and therefore it is not reasonable to expect all aspects of the college to be canvassed. The Press Council regularly rules that balance can be achieved over time and often cannot be expected to be achieved within the constraints of a single news story.
The complaint on the grounds of accuracy relates to naming the drug as ecstasy, a Class B drug. Later police confirmed that it was the Class C drug BZP involved in the incident.
The editor says the information that the drug was ecstasy came from a trusted source.
The Council notes that while the intro states “A group of six young students was rushed to hospital after an overdose of the drug ecstasy”, other statements were more equivocal: the subheading “suspected of being high on ecstasy”; “they are believed to have taken” and “Urine samples taken were to be sent away for testing to confirm what they’d taken.”
The Council also notes that as soon as the police confirmed it was the Class C drug BZP Waikato Times published the fact.
Under the circumstances, the complaint of inaccuracy is not upheld. The newspaper, finding itself to have reported inaccurately, moved quickly to correct a genuine error.
Mr Pietkiewicz’s complaint on the principle of confidentiality is not upheld as he did not establish the use of any confidential information.
The frustration of the complainant at a seemingly endless series of negative stories about Fairfield College, while understandable, must be balanced against the newspaper’s role in reporting news. Would a newspaper be of any value to its readers if it chose not to report a story such as this one because it might throw a poor light upon a college? The newspaper’s response to the online petition to support the college by running a news story on page two demonstrates that the Waikato Times is willing to write good news stories about Fairfield College where it can.
Dissent: Pip Bruce Ferguson would have upheld on accuracy. The Waikato Times, on two separate occasions, declared the drug to be ecstasy when it wasn't, and Dr Bruce Ferguson believed that they should have exercised more caution given the 'shock value' of ecstasy being distributed in a high school.
Mr Peitkiewicz’s complaints against Waikato Times are not upheld by a majority of 8:1.