MediaRoom: Judging journalism

In this week's media column Tim Murphy looks at Media Council rulings which back reporters' right to ask questions, urge caution on connecting a religious group to the Christchurch terror accused, and ask for faster corrections

The Media Council, the (self) regulator of print and digital journalism, has made a number of interesting findings in its latest round of rulings on complaints from the public over how they have been treated by media.

Journalists can ask the questions they want

One, which cleared the Stuff site and newspapers of inaccuracy, deception and unfairness in relation to stories from an interview with Deputy Police Commissioner Wally Haumaha, contains a useful message to those who think they can control what questions they get asked by a journalist.

The police complained that the interview was primarily sought to discuss Haumaha's lead role in the police response after the Christchurch terror attacks to victims and the Muslim community. Advised by the Stuff reporter that she would also have to ask about the officer's employment issues which had provoked political controversy, the police had replied Haumaha was happy to talk about Christchurch but would not "be discussing anything wider than that".

The reporter did however ask about those employment issues and the police then claimed to the council that this was an instance of subterfuge and deception as "it is inconceivable the author did not intend publishing this beforehand and intended to win for herself a headline at his expense".

Reassuringly, that attempt to win regulator backing for a ban on particular types of questions, failed. The Media Council took the opposite view, praising journalist Carmen Parahi for attempting to raise an issue of "significant public and media interest".

The fact the police said their deputy commissioner would not talk about an issue "in no way limits the reporter in the questions she may choose to ask. Nor was any such limitation agreed to by the reporter," the council said.

"In our view a journalist who failed to explore the effects and the contents of the two reports in the first interview given by the complainant would have been failing in their duty ... The complainant was asked about the investigation and effectively, as was his right, chose not to respond."

The message to newsmakers and their communications handlers is simple. You can choose what you want to answer but you can't choose what you get asked. It is not duplicitous for a journalist to ask questions beyond what you are hoping to discuss.

Photo: Supplied

Fairness to Thor worshippers

In another case, the council partly upheld a complaint from a Thor-worshipping religious group and its leader Cameron Mottus over a Stuff feature article by Andrea Vance entitled "the religion of supremacy" which appeared two weeks after the Christchurch terror attacks.

The Media Council rejected almost all complaints laid under 10 of its principles, saying Stuff's reporting of the similarities between the group's beliefs and those of white supremacist thinking overseas, was accurate, evidence based, appeared under a headline which conveyed a key element of the article and did not gratuitously emphasise religious belief. It did not infringe privacy or the interest of children (when it mentioned the group's leader's children without identifying information).

However Stuff was pinged over fairness - and this was because the report said the New Zealand organisation, Fensalir Kindred, was "linked to the Christchurch mosque shootings".

The council said: "There may be a link between the mosque shootings and the wider (international) Asatru Folk Assembly outside of New Zealand but a reader of the Stuff article could reasonably take away the message that Mr Mottus or members of his New Zealand group were more closely involved either by contact with the shooter or by condoning the violence that occurred or in similar ways.

"Given the likelihood of a strong public reaction to the claim, any publication would need to be very sure of its ground before making such a claim and the Media Council is not satisfied that the evidence Stuff has produced is sufficient to support the claim of a link."  It upheld one strand of the complaint on the grounds of fairness.

Guarding against advertiser influence

On a less grave note, the council rejected a complaint against the New Zealand Herald that it had a conflict of interest when highlighting a real estate agent within a news story about the sale of the country's most expensive house.

Clark Thomborson complained it was "extremely unlikely" the Herald would have run such "promotional content for this particular sales agent [Graham Wall Real Estate] unless there was some "undeclared quid pro quo for the Herald". He claimed the story promoted the single, exclusive listing by that agent and embellished the agent's public reputation.

He wanted a review of the Herald's practices for managing and disclosing conflicts of interest and an explanation from the paper of "why the distinction between advertising and news is very important to maintain".

The Herald said the ongoing attempts to sell the country's most expensive property were newsworthy, the story not a paid advert and there was no quid pro quo or conflict of interest. It had robust processes to ensure a clear distinction between editorial and advertising.

The Media Council accepted the paper's view, saying the line between news and advertising was often blurred in reporting on consumer issues and "even more blurred when it comes to reporting on property matters".

"The articles usually include quotes by the agent and, often, the sellers, and can stir up a lot more interest in a property than might otherwise have been the case. But that does not mean the stories are not newsworthy. In fact there is a voracious appetite for property and real estate stories - and the various efforts to sell a luxury mansion on Waiheke Island would certainly qualify as newsworthy."

It did, however, take note of the complainant's sentiment. "While we can accept [the Herald's] assurance that there was no payment or quid pro quo with the agency, it is obvious that real estate advertising is a valuable source of revenue for print media.

"That makes it doubly important to guard against perceptions that this relationship influences editorial decisions."

The ruling says it was unusual how prominent the exclusive agency agreement had been in the story with "more newsworthy aspects about the property further down the article" but wondered if that was the only new material the journalist had to work with and had been used to "dress it up with a new angle".

And finally, a summit on making corrections.

MP Louisa Wall complained about a Stuff report on a select committee's proposed review into Pharmac and Wall's dealings with Malcolm Mulholland who is seeking an inquiry into the agency.

Wall challenged Stuff's story under nine Media Council principles but succeeded on just one, the process for making corrections. Stuff had accepted the need to correct two errors on April 15 but did not make the changes online until April 23, due to what the company said were "production errors".

The Media Council deadpanned: "This does not equate to a prompt response ... Stuff's credibility has not been enhanced by this extended delay."

But it was a broader observation in the ruling that was of note. "The council is receiving increasing numbers of complaints that are wholly or partly about the timeliness of amendments. Those who have sought amendments are understandably anxious to have them made."

It has proposed it works with the industry to develop industry guidelines on "appropriate and acceptable timeframes for making amendments" to stories. "While there will always be exceptional circumstances, the guidelines can help set realistic expectations for complainants and best practice standards for industry members."

* The chair of the Media Council, Sir John Hansen, has stood down and been replaced by former Court of Appeal judge Raynor Asher, who has returned to the bar.

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