TONY BOOKER AGAINST THE MANAWATU EVENING STANDARDThe Manawatu Evening Standard ran a series of articles from March 29 to April 9 this year following the death of a 16-year-old schoolboy. Complaints were received from Susan Webb, Christine Davidson and Tony Booker about the newspaper's stories.
The Press Council has upheld the complaint about the newspaper’s lack of fairness and balance in these stories, under principle 1 of its Statement of Principles. The complainants criticised several aspects of the newspaper’s treatment, but the Press Council does not uphold any specific complaint other than the central one just referred to. As indicated below, some of the actions for which the newspaper was criticised were normal and acceptable practice in high-pressure daily journalism.
The front page lead of the Standard on March 29 was headlined "Bullies blamed for death" under a smaller overline "Teen tragedy". It reported that families and friends of Jay Brady, a 16-year-old who committed suicide early in March, thought they knew why he had done it.
It is significant to mention here that the first article was published approximately three weeks after the death. The Coroner's inquest was held on October 10, 2001 with a finding the death was self-inflicted. See the final two paragraphs of this adjudication.
The first story quoted the parents as saying that they believed persistent bullying at the school was the reason for his death, and that several people had contacted them about the bullying he allegedly suffered. The principal Ron O'Leary was quoted as saying "Neither I nor any teacher in the school had knowledge of any bullying against him," and spoke of the school's clear anti-bullying policy.
The theme was followed in the front page lead the following day, "The boy they called Jesus", where anonymous students, with their parents' consent, spoke of the bullying of Jay they had seen or friends had told them about. The reference to Jesus came from a role the boy had had in a school play.
The lead story on March 31 was "Parents rally around St Peter's College" with a supporting story "Coverage 'sensational' ", where Larry Ching, a Manawatu Principals' Association representative, was critical of the paper's coverage as "inappropriate and premature".
On Monday April 2, a panel across seven columns at the bottom of the newspaper's front page quoted St Peter's College 7th-former Vanessa Shaw, with her father's permission, talking about being bullied at school. Margaret Richardson was quoted about her grandson being taunted at the school. On the same day the paper's editorial "Dealing with bullying in our schools" commented on the gulf between the school's view and reports of others on bullying at St Peter's College.
"It was the link between the allegations of bullying and Jay's self-inflicted death last month which gave what happened a special resonance," it said. The editorial concluded that "in airing the concerns of the Bradys some good might yet come from the death of their son because bullying and its consequences must be acknowledged and discussed."
The first letter to the editor appeared the same day and was critical of the newspaper. The letter was also quoted in the front page story. Between April 2 and 17, the newspaper went on to run 30 letters, 25 of them supporting the school and critical of the paper's stories. In 20 of the letters, the writers acknowledged a past or present association with the school.
Some of the letters to the editor discussed suicide as having complex causes, not just having a single or simple origin. Letters from the subsequent complainants Susan Webb and Christine Davidson were among the general letters to the editor, both strongly expressing their disapproval of the newspaper's stories.
On April 5, a letter from Brady's parents was run as a news story on page one. Martin Brady wrote that his letter was originally intended as a thank you note to St Peter's College - "his mother and I appreciate everything they have done" - but he also thanked the newspaper for opening their eyes to "what is actually happening at this school."
Three complaints were lodged with the Press Council. One was from Susan Webb, senior lecturer and co-ordinator of counselling and guidance programmes at the Massey University Department of Health and Human Development. She is also the facilitator of the project "The prevention, recognition and management of young people at risk of suicide". Christine Davidson, who formerly taught at the school, lodged an individual complaint and the a third complaint came from Tony Booker, a teacher at the school who was on secondment to the Ministry of Education at the time of the newspaper coverage.
All three complained about inaccuracy in reporting of the alleged bullying at the school, and the effect on at-risk students in a time of grief of reporting a young man's self-inflicted death. They questioned whether the paper's sources were reliable, as it had quoted anonymous students, and whether the school had been given adequate chance to reply. They were concerned that the paper had breached the Ministry of Health Guidelines as set out in the ministry booklet Suicide and The Media.
A particular concern of the complainants was the effect on the school of the sustained coverage in the newspaper, as extra counselling staff were needed and distressed or at-risk young people became focused on the story.
The preparation and presentation of all three separate written complaints were of the highest order. The three complainants appeared individually before the Council at its meeting on September 24, 2001, making oral submissions in support of their written complaints.
The Manawatu Evening Standard defended its series of stories as being handled professionally and sensitively. Editor Tony Curran, in detailed responses to the complainants, repeated that the paper had taken the Ministry of Health guidelines seriously but treated them as guidelines not prescriptions, and had weighed up professional counsellors' advice not to publish against the legitimate public interest which the Standard had a duty to serve.
He denied that the newspaper had sought to provide a simplistic explanation, blame particular students or "demonise" the school, as one complainant had said.
He said the paper had given the school adequate opportunity to respond, respected off-the-record confidences in meetings with the school principal and found experts on counselling unwilling to go on the record because of privacy matters. He said the feelings of the Brady family, who approached the newspaper in the first instance, were respected. He defended the number of articles as part of the developing nature of the story, and rejected the accusation of sensationalism, saying the placement of articles was in keeping with their significant news value.
He agreed the decision to publish the letter from the Brady's on the front page was unusual, but consistent with the ongoing news value of the issue. In answer to the complaint that the school had no chance to respond to comments in the letter, the editor said a letter from a grieving family would be seen as such by a reasonable reader.
The Press Council gave lengthy consideration to this case, and waited for the Coroner's Court hearing before delivering its adjudication. Both sides had valid cases to make. Youth suicide is of major concern, and this silent epidemic has grown under one of the world's toughest regimes about what can be reported publicly about suicide. Newspapers are anxious to present stories on this issue of major public interest. Counsellors familiar with research on the effect of stories about suicide in the press want the Ministry of Health Guidelines adhered to more strictly.
There are several areas of concern in the Manawatu Evening Standard's coverage. The newspaper began with a story of assertions headlined "Bullies blamed for death". There is no evidence in that story or the continuing series that other or more complex causes were canvassed. Research into suicide suggests the causes are usually never simple or singular, and often the act may be the final step in a series of complex events. The newspaper allowed one or two people quoted to suggest this but did not itself investigate this consideration.
Then by keeping a series of seven stories on the front page over six days, the newspaper gave this personal and tragic story a weight and prominence which even major local news stories rarely carry. Many of those involved emotionally were naturally reluctant to speak out freely. The newspaper’s stance as the discloser of “revelations” largely left it to the Letters to the Editor pages to provide other perspectives. It is in this respect that the newspaper did not meet the necessary standards of balance or fairness in reporting on the self-inflicted death of a teenager who happened to be a St Peter’s College student.
Balance in a running series such as this is not only a question of response and counter-response, but a matter of a newspaper's own assessment and elaboration. The newspaper fell down here in exploring the questions that would provide that equalising fairness, particularly as most of its sources quoted were teenagers, some of them anonymous.
To its credit, the newspaper ran stories and letters critical of its coverage, but when it was approached by people alleging more examples of school bullying, the stories focussed on whether the school or the newspaper was correct. The original grounds for the story dealing with a self-inflicted death became buried.
Running a letter as a page one news story without giving anyone affected by the comments in the letter a chance to respond equally abdicated the newspaper's responsibility to pursue balance and fairness in all aspects of this difficult story.
On the letters page, opinions can be answered by other letters - in the news pages, newspapers should do their own work to seek out the full picture. The newspaper failed to uphold the highest professional standards by privileging this letter in the middle of a series of stories already causing emotional public debate.
In respect of the fairness and balance the paper should have observed ( as in the Press Council's principle 1) the complaints against the newspaper on this ground are upheld.
On the issues of the Manawatu Evening Standard using photographs and publishing against the advice of professional counsellors there appeared to be no deviation from accepted journalistic practice. Given the tight deadlines of daily newspapers, there is also nothing out of the ordinary in the fact that some of the Manawatu Evening Standard’s attempts to contact the principal for comment before publication were unsuccessful.
In normal circumstances, the newspaper's approach of publishing regardless of the effect of the story on third parties would have been acceptable, but here it should have been more aware of the emotional impact of stories on the school and its pupils and reflected that aspect in its coverage.
The Council has had drawn to its attention, by a complainant, the provisions of section 29 of the Coroners Act 1988 as amended in 1996. The section deals with publication of details of self-inflicted deaths both before and after the Coroner's inquest has been held. On both situations the section makes provision for the authority of a coroner to be sought for publication but the Manawatu Evening Standard has confirmed such authority was never requested.
The Council avoids making, for obvious reasons, pronouncements on legal issues such as statutory interpretation. This is particularly apposite in respect of s29 of the Act. There are difficulties with the section as to its precise meaning. It is public knowledge that the subject of coroners' functions and duties are currently under examination by the government and the Law Commission published Report 62 in August 2000 entitled Coroners. The exact problems of s29 were not addressed in that report. Furthermore the problems attendant on the true interpretation of s29 were considered in Board of Trustees of Tuakau College v Television New Zealand Ltd (HC Auckland, CP 96/96, 22 March 1996), which decision seemed to suggest s29 might now need to be interpreted in the light of s14 of the Bill of Rights Act 1990 on freedom of expression. With the law in this somewhat confused state the Council puts the legal issues to one side and makes its decision on ethical considerations applying to journalism in New Zealand. Undoubtedly the problems inherent in s29 need to be thoroughly examined by the legislature when it turns to amendment of the Coroners Act.
People with complaints against a newspaper should first complain in writing to the editor of the publication and then, if not satisfied with the response, complain to the Press Council. Complaints should be addressed to the Secretary, P O Box 10-879 The Terrace, Wellington. Tel 473 5220. Information on the Press Council is available on the internet at www.presscouncil.org.nz