Case Number: 2926

Council Meeting: JULY 2020

Decision: Upheld

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Headlines and Captions


[1] Troy Dando has complained about a series of headlines used by Stuff and in theSunday Star-Times on June 21, 2020, for a story about customs seizures of wild animal parts at New Zealand’s borders. Specifically the headlines focused on pangolins, the animal that many scientists say transmitted Covid-19 to humans.

[2] While precisely how the coronavirus moved from animals to humans is unproven, many scientists believe it started in bats and jumped to humans via an intermediary species, possibly the pangolin. While that is considered likely it is not definitively proven.

[3] The article, by Andrea Vance, draws from a report by an environmental policy analyst into the illegal trade of wild animals, in particular which body parts were confiscated at New Zealand borders.

[4] It reports government data stating that 152 products made from pangolin body parts were confiscated by Customs in 2017 and 2018.

The Complaint

[5] Mr Dando points to several Stuff headlines in his complaint as “completely untrue”. First, a headline leading the homepage on June 21 that readsPangolins at border. Second, the headline that appears on both the story page and in the ‘Most Popular’ column. It readsCoronavirus: Animal which passed Covid-19 from bats to humans trafficked into New Zealand.

[6] The complainant says the headlines are non-factual clickbait designed to lure readers with inaccuracies.

[7] Mr Dando says the headline implies live pangolins are being imported to New Zealand and that simply isn’t true. In the story it is clear that it is only pangolin body parts that people are trying to bring into the country.

[8] He also argues the headlines claiming pangolins definitively passed Covid-19 onto humans are false. That point has not been proven. Again, when you read the story, the author acknowledges “it follows scientific research which found pangolinmay (his emphasis) have transmitted the coronavirus from bats to humans as an intermediary”.

[9] Mr Dando also complains that it took Stuff two days to address the complaint and act on corrections. His email was sent at 8.33am on Sunday June 21 and the first reply to his complaint was sent on Tuesday June 23 at 11.30am. He argues not having an editor available to make corrections “24/7” is a breach of trust and “very poor form”.

The Response

[10] Sunday Star-Times News Director Kelly Dennett first replied to Mr Dando on the Tuesday. She argues that the headline doesn’t say ‘live’ pangolins and she disagrees that is implied.

[11] Ms Dennett points out that the very first sentence of the story talks about border officials seizing more than “150 products made from pangolin” and so readers would have been instantly aware they did not need to worry about live pangolins on our doorstep.

[12] Headlines, she argues, “are intended to be brief and succinct” with more details revealed in the story. She did, however, accept that the headline was wrong to suggest pangolin are known definitively to have spread the disease and said it had been updated. The story page now carries the headline Animal suspected of passing Covid-19 from bats to humans trafficked into New Zealand.

[13] Sunday Star-Times editor Tracy Watkins, responding to the Council, also acknowledges that headline could have originally been clearer and says the word “suspected” was added to “introduce the necessary element of doubt”. Ms Watkins also says the homepage headline does not say ‘live’ pangolin “and the story goes into detail about the specific parts of the pangolin” stopped at the border.

[14] As to the timing of Stuff’s response, she says the complaint was sent initially to Janine Fenwick, as per Stuff’s online advice. Fenwick was on leave and Mr Dando received a reply saying urgent emails should be sent

[15] Ms Watkins points out that for whatever reason Mr Dando did not use that address and assures both the Council and him that if he had done so his complaint would have been dealt with earlier.

The Discussion

[16] Mr Dando complains under four principles, but in fact his concerns can be best addressed as a complaint under Principle 6, Headlines and Captions:

Headlines, sub-headings, and captions should accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to cover.

And under Principle 1, Accuracy, Fairness and Balance. The key section reads:

Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission.

[17] On the matter of timing, the Council accepts that Mr Dando chose not to use the email address supplied in Ms Fenwick’s out of office reply and so the delay in response is in large part down to his own decision. Mr Dando suggests a general ‘newsroom’ address is inappropriate lest the complaint be confidential, but in this case it was not confidential so that point is not at issue.

[18] No media organisation in New Zealand has editors on call 24/7 and Mr Dando’s expectations on that front are unrealistic.

[19] Having said that, given Ms Fenwick’s address is published as the main avenue for complaints, her out of office reply could have been much clearer in guiding complainants. There was no specific advice for them nor was the complaint redirected to someone designated to handle any complaints received while she was away, which might have been expected.

[20] As to the substance of the complaint, Stuff is to be applauded for changing the story page headline to introduce the necessary element of doubt as to how the virus has been passed from wildlife to humans.

[21] However given the time it took for Stuff to see the complaint and the fact the editor’s response is silent on this matter, the Council must assume that the same headline in the Most Popular section remained incorrect until it disappeared from the page and was never corrected.

[22] While Stuff claims the homepage headline Pangolins at border does not suggest live pangolins were being imported, the headline does suggest something other than the truth of the story.

[23] While headlines cannot be expected to carry every nuance of a story, the statementPangolins at border is simply untrue. No pangolins – live or dead – were at the border. A collection of body parts had been two or three years earlier. The story explains that, but the headline does not accurately convey it and there is no evidence supplied that it was ever corrected.

[24] A photo of a live pangolin directly under the headline and the subhead Pangolins, scaly creatures suspected of carrying Covid-19, have been trafficked into New Zealand, also undermine the facts reported in the article.

[25] Further, the pangolin body parts had been intercepted at the border in 2017 and 2018. A reasonable reader, seeing that headline in the present tense (again, with the accompanying photo and subhead), could easily understand it to mean pangolins infected with Covid-19 have either reached – or breached – New Zealand’s borders. At a time when concern about the virus is understandably high, such loose wording is irresponsible.


[26] The complaint under Principle 1 and Principle 6 is upheld

Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Marie Shroff, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.


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