VANESSA SELAK AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD
Case Number: 2941
Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2020
Verdict: Not Upheld
Publication: New Zealand Herald
Ruling Categories: Discrimination
1. Vanessa Selak has complained about a story published on the New Zealand Herald’s website on July 14, 2020, headlinedCovid 19 coronavirus: Australian deportees arrive at their ‘boutique-style’ Auckland isolation facility.
2. The story is about a batch of Kiwi deportees from Australia returning to New Zealand to quarantine at a downtown Auckland hotel.
3. The story is accompanied by four photographs, two are of men shot from behind entering the hotel and one each are of the outside of the hotel and a police guard.
4. One of the photographs depicts a man walking into the hotel carrying two large bags. He is wearing a shirt with Samoa printed on the back.
5. Ms Selak believes the NZ Herald has breached the Media Council’s Principle 7, Discrimination and Diversity which states:
Issues of gender, religion, minority groups, sexual orientation, age, race, colour or physical or mental disability are legitimate subjects for discussion where they are relevant and in the public interest, and publications may report and express opinions in these areas. Publications should not, however, place gratuitous emphasis on any such category in their reporting.
6. She says the headline and photo “are clearly meant to inflame and perpetuate the racist stereotype of all deportees being being Pacific or ‘brown’”.
7. The photo “smacks of racism and is not responsible reporting in NZ at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement spreads across the world.”
8. The Herald’s deputy head of news, Hamish Fletcher, said the complaint was “without merit” because “our reporting places no emphasis whatsoever on the race or ethnicity of the deportees.”
9. Mr Fletcher said the Herald “took and published” two photographs of deportees who arrived at the Ramada Hotel in addition to photos of the hotel itself and the police presence outside it.
10. He said one of the two people happened to be wearing clothing with the word “Samoa” printed on it. TheHerald had no control over what people wore arriving at the hotel.
11. The caption made no reference to ethnicity of the people being photographed and there is no mention of ethnicity or race “in the headline or anywhere in the copy”.
12. The photographs were newsworthy, taken from a public place and in the public interest as deportations of New Zealand citizens under section 501 of Australia’s Migration Act had been on hold due to the Coronavirus crisis. Mr Fletcher said the group that was the subject of the Herald’s report was the first to arrive back after the deportations resumed. There was heightened concern about the deportees because of the Covid-19 resurgence in Australia and security issues at some managed isolation facilities.
13. The Herald rejected the complainants' inference that it intentionally wished to aggravate racist stereotypes - “it was neither our intention, nor was it the effect or the result of our reporting”.
Ms Selak’s Second Response
14. Responding to the Herald, Ms Selak said the Herald’s response that it did not “use words to refer to ethnicity/race” and therefore did not apply gratuitous emphasis was “disingenuous”. “A picture is worth a thousand words, this is well understood by the New Zealand Herald”.
15. She said NZH had “some” control over who and what they photographed as well as which photos were published. She used the word “some” because “they may not have complete control because they may not be aware of their own racial biases”.
16. In considering this complaint the Media Council must determine if the photograph of the man with Samoa on his shirt and the story’s headline have breached Principle 7.
17. Turning to the headline, the Council can find nothing wrong with the heading which it regards as a straightforward representation of the news story it promotes. The same can be said of the caption, which states what is seen in the photograph: “Those getting off the van could be seen carrying many bags as luggage”.
18. The question at stake is whether the Herald in choosing to run a news photograph of a brown skinned man with Samoa on his shirt entering a hotel has placed gratuitous emphasis on race or colour as identified in Principle 7.
19. The Media Council does not believe it has. As Mr Fletcher has pointed out there is no mention of race in the story or heading and the Council believes the news value of the piece is not in question.
20. That then leaves Ms Selak’s contention that the Herald was acting under either conscious or unconscious bias when it took and published the photograph complained about.
21. Ms Selak has provided no evidence to support her thesis. The Herald published two photographs of two different people, one of whom was brown and the other appears to be white, though it is hard to tell from the photographs. The images do what they are supposed to do. They tell a story of people forcibly moved from one country to another entering a hotel carrying their worldly possessions. One man is hefting a large suitcase or bag as he breaches the hotel’s threshold while the other labours under a heavier load with both arms carrying a large bag each. These are news photographs caught at a moment in time presumably when a busy photographer was able to get a well framed, clear shot from a safe distance. The Council believes those were the imperatives that the photographer and publisher were acting under and not a conscious or unconscious agenda.
22. Although the Council does acknowledge that both conscious and unconscious bias can occur it finds no evidence in this instance to support the complainant’s case.
23. The role of the news media is not to curate a depiction of a perfectly neutral world in which any kind of inference about race, ethnicity, sexuality or gender are edited out of existence. The news media’s role is to report the news without fear or favour in its raw state.
The complaint was not upheld.
Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.