WAITAKERE CITY COUNCIL AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALDThe Press Council has not upheld a complaint against an article in the New Zealand Herald on 21 August 2001 dealing with a recently-released report by the Land Transport Safety Authority on road safety. The article was headed ‘Legend of the Westie hoon no urban myth’. The City Council claimed that several Press Council principles were breached and that the article was inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced. The article first misrepresented raw data (statistics) and then used the misinformation thus created, to extrapolate an explicit description of Waitakere drivers as prone to getting drunk, roaring off in their cars and wrapping themselves around power poles. Not only did it therefore, fail to maintain a distinction between fact and conjecture (in breach of Principle 6) but it actually manipulated the facts to create conjecture. The City Council’s statement in rebuttal of the article had not been published by the newspaper, despite repeated requests.
Of particular concern to the City Council was the fact that the Herald article used only one of three sets of statistics in the report on Waitakere City, namely those dealing with crashes per 100 million kilometres travelled (VKT). Nothing was said about the information on crashes per 10,000 of population, nor was there any clear reference to the information on trends within Waitakere in various categories of accident in the ten years 1991-2000. The City Council strongly criticised the fact that the Herald article took no account of, and made no reference to, the explanatory note in the Waitakere Report which said that estimated traffic flows had contributed to the VKT statistics, and that these figures were therefore not as reliable as the Crashes per 10,000 people measure. The City Council said that analysis of the other two sets of data would have shown Waitakere in much more favourable terms, reflecting the strenuous efforts that had gone into improving road safety in the area. The Herald’s article, the City Council claimed, had used selective data to portray Waitakere in a bad light.
The editor, in his responses to the complainant and to the Press Council, stood by the story and the basis on which it was written. “ …our story was based entirely on statistical data provided by the Land Transport Safety Authority and used with its blessing.” He believed “the terms used in the headline and introduction to the story, while colourful, are borne out by the statistics and accurately reflect conclusions that could be reasonably drawn from that data.” The editor supplied the Press Council with a copy of each of the Waitakere and Auckland Region Reports.
The Press Council has set aside, as not germane to the present complaint, a further City Council allegation that this road safety article was the third attack on Waitakere published by the Herald in 2001. Nor does the Press Council think it necessary to go at length into the question of whether the newspaper should have covered all three sets of statistics. It has noted that almost all the Waitakere Report is devoted to the VKT five-year statistics and to the ten- and five-year trends. It is legitimate for a daily newspaper to select one aspect of a complex report and present its findings, but the basis of this partial coverage should have been clearly explained.
The reporter’s task was a very demanding one. The LTSA report on Waitakere contains 73 figures and 14 Tables. There is no narrative analysis or commentary just statistical information and graphs. There are figures and tables for four types of road: State highway (SH) urban and rural, local authority (LA) urban and rural. It was inevitable that for a brief news story only a small selection from this mass of information could be glanced at.
The editor stated that the complaint appears to have been provoked by the use of terms such as “petrolhead westies”, “boozing” and “speeding”. He says that “Figures 24, 25 and 26e in the Waitakere City report show Waitakere is above the national average for rural and urban alcohol related crashes; figure 26 shows speed is a problem on urban roads. Figures 38 and 39 show Waitakere drivers topped the national average for a raft of accidents, such as hitting parked vehicles, trees and power poles, and driving off cliffs.”
The City Council agreed that the city did exceed (not top) the national average for a raft of types of accidents (trees, power poles and driving off cliffs) but it was also well below the national average for hitting fences, buildings and bridges. It said the city is on the national average for all objects struck. The City Council added that “Alcohol is above the national average for urban crashes but is again well below the average for rural crashes. The main point to note is that alcohol has consistently trended downwards in both environments over the measured period.”
This clash of views illustrates how readily isolated aspects of the Road Safety Report can be picked out and highlighted. Although the City Council’s unpublished statement in rebuttal contained an element of self-congratulation, it convincingly demonstrated that a much more positive analysis of the Report would show how seriously, and how effectively, Waitakere traffic authorities have tackled major problems in the area.
The Press Council has carefully examined the complaint, and has concluded that there are significant omissions and deficiencies in the newspaper article, but that these do not justify the imposition of the Council’s “uphold” decision. There should have been some reference to the basis of selection of the VKT figures the article would have been more balanced if it had included some detail from the other sets of data, both of which showed important positive aspects of Waitakere road safety. The strongly tabloid character of the article, with its striking headline and boldly colourful language, proves to have been ill-suited to capturing the multi-stranded message of this very detailed report. It is regrettable that the article was not followed up in any way, so that the City Council’s counter-claims and more comprehensive analysis could have been put before readers.
However, the Press Council does not think the damage done to the reputation of Waitakere is as severe as the complainant claims. Indeed, the City Council’s own detailed submissions to the Press Council make very clear that this robust and determined community has been tackling road safety problems with considerable success, and communicating this in the region. The wider Auckland community surely understands that the stereotype of West Aucklanders that the Herald article seeks to perpetuate is just that, a stereotype, a simplistic substitute for thinking about the current scene in a more complex way.
The complaint is not upheld.