WAITAKI BOYS HIGH SCHOOL AGAINST THE OAMARU MAILThe Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Waitaki Boys’ High School about an Oamaru Mail story of an Education Review Office report on Waimate High School.
Waitaki rector Dr Paul Baker complains about the July 25 story for breaching Press Council principles of accuracy, and headlines and captions.
The headline to the page 3 lead story reads: “Waimate High students excelling – ERO report”; the caption starts, “Good report…”, before identifying the group of students pictured.
Dr Baker refers to an earlier (March 2) story in the paper about the ERO report on his own school. Though saying this article is not complained about “per se”, he says it is included in his correspondence for the sake of comparison.
Dr Baker’s complaint is that reports of Waimate’s excellence are not borne out by the actual language of the ERO report. He singles out the story’s first sentence, which reads: “Waimate High School students are excelling due to the school’s attractive learning environment, according to a recent Education Review.” But the word “excelling” is used nowhere in the report which, in fact, states that some students are performing below the national average, some around the average, and some above.
The phrase “attractive learning environment” is used in the report, “but not in any sense as an explanation for excellence”.
Saying that ERO reports are hugely important for schools, he contrasts the story with the earlier report of his own school which, he says, received an outstanding judgment – “significantly above the average for similar schools” - but rated a much smaller cover in the paper.
To correct “the injustice”, the newspaper should publish verbatim a summary section contained in the two reports, and adopt the practice in future.
Dr Baker also complains that two letters he wrote to the newspaper were not replied to.
The Newspaper’s Response:
Responding, Oamaru Mail editor in chief Barry Clarke accepts the word “excelling” does not appear in the ERO report. He supports the word, however, because of a report finding that “students achieve at or above the average” of other schools of the same type and decile.
The earlier story on Waitaki had been “very fair” and “in many ways treated similar (sic) to the Waimate High coverage”. Although the Waitaki report had not been given page 3 lead treatment, this was because of different news structures and options taken into account at the time.
The suggestion that the paper publish verbatim ERO summaries had merit and would be looked at in 2008.
On the matter of non-response to letters, he had received just one. If he had received the second, which “may not have been forwarded to me from the Oamaru office” and would have been “the one in which he presumably seeks a response”, he would certainly have telephoned in reply.
Dr Baker reiterated that “above average” was not the same thing as “excelling”.
The report clearly stated that it was only Year 12 and 13 students achieving above average. Further, the same report paragraph said that in Year 9 and 10 the proportion performing above the expected level was lower than national expectations, but this was not mentioned in the story.
The coverage of the two ERO reports had not been similar, either in terms of length, the extent of the praise, or the use of photograph.
Mr Clarke’s only added comment was to dispel a suggestion the Waimate information had come from a press release. The Waimate principal had been interviewed.
The main strand of this complaint is accuracy. There is no doubt that Waimate’s ERO report is, some small provisos aside, largely complimentary of the school’s learning and teaching performance.
Notably, the ERO’s letter to the school’s parents and community says the school has made good progress in addressing earlier ERO recommendations. It praises the overall good standard of teaching and notes a high quality learning culture that is ongoing.
Whether or not “excelling” is the best term to describe the school’s overall positive achievements is subjective.
For Dr Baker to give his complaint standing requires, even though it is not part of the complaint, a comparison with the ERO report of his own school which, though also praised, did not receive the same hyperbolic newspaper treatment.
This is not a reasonable comparison to be attempted. The essence of newspaper work is that news is a relative and moveable feast; what warrants the front page on one day, may be deemed far from that stature on another. Many variables may be taken into account, including, in this case, expectations: perhaps Waitaki’s reputation has been so high for so long, a sterling report was deemed unremarkable. Nothing should be read into the facts of disparate lengths, the lack of picture in the case of Waitaki, or a slightly less ecstatic headline.
Where Dr Baker does have ground for upset, is the non-response of Mr Clarke to his letters. It is easy to understand mishaps where there is a cumbersome newspaper structure with the editor in chief residing in a distant city. But that is no excuse. Setting aside the issue of how such a newspaper can know its community from afar, all newspapers have a responsibility to be able to respond quickly and fairly to their constituents.
Dr Baker’s call for the running verbatim of ERO summaries also deserves address. Mr Clarke has offered to consider this. The idea may indeed have some merit – but not as a substitute for traditionally-reported stories. If the summaries were to be readers’ sole source of information they would be ill-served the moment something warranted deeper questioning.
For the reasons given above the substantive complaint is not upheld.
On the issue of non-response to letters, Mr Clarke is enjoined to implement a system where letters of complaint reach him quickly and are responded to quickly (this is not the first time communications have broken down between Oamaru and Christchurch). An alternative would be to ensure a senior staff member with delegated authority works in Oamaru, within the area of the newspaper’s readers.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Barry Paterson, Aroha Beck, Kate Coughlan, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.