MediaRoom: thou shalt not decide
In this week's MediaRoom column: the Media Council flexes its muscles, the Herald website holds up well post-paywall and news and talkback radio drops listeners after the Christchurch terror audience peak.
Media Council decisions
COMMENT: There's good news for complainants against media organisations - and a tremor or two across the nation's newsrooms - from the latest findings of newspaper and website regulator the Media Council.
The council, chaired by a former judge and made up of a majority of members of the public and a number of senior journalists, is increasingly reaching into areas of newsroom judgment previously thought to remain with editors.
In its latest findings it rules:
- a newspaper should not have used a particular photo of a woman's expression when being sentenced, taken with a judge's permission, in a courtroom,
- that a reporter's personal agreement with an interviewee not to mention another family member was not met by just not naming that person
- that a newspaper should not keep using an archive photo of drinks outside a rugby league club, and
- that an editor should not have used a particular, online, anonymous comment on his letters page.
What is a letter to the editor and what is an online comment?
That last complaint involved the Gisborne Herald publishing a number of online comments responding to a petition against the 250-year celebration of the arrival of Captain Cook. Historically, the Media Council left it to editors to judge which letters they published. However, the online Gisborne comments were anonymous and not, technically, letters.
And the editor did not do himself any favours by, in one instance, telling the complainant a disputed comment was published because the paper had space it needed to fill.
The Kia Mau group complained the postings were "uninformed, callous, inflammatory and insensitive" with the final posting showing "racist sentiments", but was told by the paper its own views had "wound up a lot of people" and the views in the postings reflected that.
The Media Council found the final comment, urging Māori objecting to celebrations of Cook's arrival to hand back cars, houses, mobile phones, fridges and computers, was "based on an absurd and racist premise".
"In our view, the principle of freedom of expression cannot excuse the decision of the Gisborne Herald to publish such an abusive comment in its Letter to the Editors section."
The council members were not impressed with the editor's admission that that last posting had in part been used to "fill space" on the page.
"We do not consider the fact that there was a need to fill a space to be any excuse for the publication; to the contrary it is entirely the wrong reason to justify publication of an otherwise unacceptable statement."
The council split seven votes to four in its finding that the posting "should not have been published," with three senior journalist members and one layperson against.
And, interestingly, split decisions are becoming a feature of this council as it flexes its regulatory muscles.
Who should choose which courtroom photo of a defendant a newspaper can publish?
The council was divided over multiple complaints over the Otago Daily Times using, then sharing with the NZ Herald and RNZ, a photo of an upset woman defendant in a court sentencing. Despite the hearing's judge having approved photography in court, the Media Council felt seven votes to four that the ODT ought not to have chosen a particular frame of its photos because a vulnerable person was in distress.
That decision - stepping firmly into an editor's shoes as judge and selector of content - prompted "significant dissent" from four members: Tim Watkin (of RNZ), Tracy Watkins (Sunday Star-Times), Craig Cooper (Hawkes Bay Today) and independent Rosemary Barraclough.
"Most of the industry members feel strongly that the photograph powerfully illustrates a serious and important although traumatic news story and it was appropriate to publish it. We fear the majority decision is a case of shooting the messenger."
They wrote the media frequently covered difficult cases and humiliating events, but the photograph helped accurately tell the story. "A media organisation would not be doing its job if it attempted to make events appear less distressing or serious in retrospect, even when coverage is upsetting to those involved."
When is a photo too old to republish?
In another decision impacting an editor's right to select a photograph for use with a story, the council upheld a complaint from the Linwood Rugby League Club over The Press's use of a photo from 2009 of some of its members drinking from cans on a terrace while watching a match next to a story on a possible alcohol ban at such events.
It was the third time in five months the paper had re-published that image and lawyers for the club complained it was unfair as it had nothing to do with people behaving in an unruly manner involving alcohol.
The paper argued the image was clearly labelled as a file photo from 2009 and there could not have been confusion from readers that it represented today's concerns.
But the council agreed with the club and said the repeated use of the photo, while "not inaccurate and misleading" could be "regarded as unfair stigmatisation of the club and its supporters". Craig Cooper dissented from this decision.
Council rules on a reporter's promise
Cooper and Tim Watkin also stood aside from a council finding against a Stuff reporter who agreed not "to mention" a family member of an interview subject but did refer to that person without using a name, in one sentence of a story.
Complainant Julie Thoms said her privacy had been breached. When she complained about the nameless reference to her family member in the Sunday Star Times newspaper story, it was removed from the online version. The paper said the reference arose from a genuine misunderstanding by the reporter, who thought the agreement was not to name or photograph the person.
The council decided the reporter "should have been much clearer in her communication with Ms Thoms" and clarified the situation so no misunderstanding could occur.
Herald cleared over one-sided interview
The New Zealand Herald has escaped censure for an interview with former retirement commissioner Diane Maxwell, which complainant Susan Godinet argued was imbalanced and unfair. The story allowed Maxwell to focus on an inquiry finding which cleared her of bullying and adopt a tone of someone who had been vindicated, when in fact the inquiry found three incidents by Maxwell of unreasonable behaviour and inappropriate conduct.
Godinet argued it had not reflected "the genuine concern about the workplace culture" that had caused 15 individuals to complain.
The council decision said there was no proper summary of the inquiry report and no mention of the findings against Maxwell. "It would have been good practice to do so."
But while it "would have been a better article if it had made reference to the parts of the report that were adverse as to Ms Maxwell", the interview story did not transgress the council's principles. The interview followed a history of publications about the case and readers would have been "aware that serious bullying allegations had been made and complainants might still believe the allegations to be true."
In brief: The latest Nielsen monthly online audience figures show the nzherald.co.nz site proving remarkably resilient in holding unique users since it introduced a paywall at the end of April. In the time since readers were asked to pay for 'premium' content, the Herald site dropped by about 100,000 readers a month at one stage in that period, but in August that was reclaimed.
The site posted 1.74 million unique readers, not far off what it achieved in April. Its major competitor, Stuff.co.nz, has more than 2.1 million, substantially higher than its April figure. While holding its total readership, the Herald is also benefiting from 15,000 paying digital subscribers.
In brief: A new round of radio ratings shows a peak in listenership for news and talk radio stations after the March 15 Christchurch terror attacks had, not unexpectedly, ebbed in the months since.
On the commercial side of the market, Newstalk ZB had a stellar result in the last GfK ratings survey released in June - hitting a 12.4 market share nationally, well ahead of the Breeze at 8.6 in second. This time, the twin survey periods fell after the terror attacks had produced such intense public interest in the news and Newstalk ebbed back to an 11.0 share, with the Breeze, still the best of its music challengers, rising to 9.0.
In Auckland, ZB's stonking 15.3 share last survey fell to 12.7, still well ahead of Mai FM, which regained some lost ground to record 7.7. The ZB king of morning radio, Mike Hosking, also saw his strong June share fall, from a sky-high 22.4 back to a still dominant 17.5 in Auckland, and nationally from 17.2 to 15.1.
For RNZ, which is in a separate audience survey, the post-Christchurch period also saw RNZ National, Morning Report and all other shows drop back from the June results. RNZ National's total audience was 599,800 across the week, down from 626,900 in June and compared with 512,400 for Newstalk ZB. Morning Report fell from 459,500 to 441,300 in weekly audience, compared to Hosking's nationwide listenership of 381,800.