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Morton and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2017-004 (19 April 2017)

Members

  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga

Complainant

  • Gary Morton

Dated

19th April 2017

Number

2017-004

Channel/Station

TVNZ 1

Broadcaster

Television New Zealand Ltd

Paula Rose declared a conflict of interest and did not participate in the determination of this complaint.

Summary

[This summary does not form part of the decision.]

On 14 November 2016, in a 1 News special update, the newsreader updated viewers on events surrounding a 7.8 magnitude earthquake centred near Kaikoura that occurred just after midnight that day. The newsreader stated, ‘there has been another quake-related death at Mt Lyford; that is after someone suffered a heart attack’. The Authority did not uphold a complaint from the partner of the person who died at Mt Lyford that this statement was inaccurate given that his partner had died from earthquake-related injuries, but not a heart attack. The Authority acknowledged these were distressing circumstances for the complainant. It also emphasised, however, the high public interest in the broadcast and the role of the media in providing information to New Zealanders following a significant natural disaster. The Authority found the broadcaster made reasonable efforts in the circumstances to ensure the accuracy of the statement by relying on information provided to it by emergency services. While precise verification was not available at the time of this broadcast, TVNZ ceased referring to a heart attack as the cause of death once it became aware earlier information provided to it may not have been correct. The fairness standard was not applicable in the circumstances.

Not Upheld: Accuracy, Fairness (Action Taken)


Introduction

[1]  On 14 November 2016, in a 1 News special update broadcast immediately prior to the 6pm news bulletin, the newsreader updated viewers on events surrounding a magnitude 7.8 earthquake centred near Kaikoura that occurred just after midnight that day. The newsreader stated:

One person has been confirmed dead in a building collapse near Kaikoura, and there has been another quake-related death at Mt Lyford; that is after someone suffered a heart attack.

[2]  Text shown onscreen during this statement read, ‘2 confirmed deaths’. A text banner shown at the bottom of the screen later in the update then read, ‘PM John Key confirms 2 people dead following quakes’.

[3]  Gary Morton, the partner of the person who died at Mt Lyford, complained that the broadcast was inaccurate and unfair. He maintained that his partner’s death was caused by other earthquake-related injuries, but not a heart attack.

[4]  TVNZ did not uphold Mr Morton’s complaint that the item breached the accuracy standard, but upheld the complaint under the fairness standard. Having upheld part of the complaint, TVNZ unreservedly apologised to Mr Morton and his family for the distress caused to him by the broadcast, and offered its condolences for his loss. Mr Morton referred his complaint to the Authority on the basis the action taken by TVNZ was insufficient, and maintained the broadcast also breached the accuracy standard.

[5]  Therefore, the issues are:

  • whether the special news update breached the accuracy standard of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice; and
  • whether the action taken by TVNZ, in upholding Mr Morton’s complaint under the fairness standard, was sufficient.

[6]  The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Background

[7]  At 12.02am on 14 November 2016, New Zealand experienced a magnitude 7.8 earthquake, centred near Kaikoura.1 The earthquake was a major natural disaster for New Zealand and caused significant damage and disruption to various parts of the country, in particular to the Kaikoura region. Two deaths were reported as resulting from the earthquake. Substantial aftershocks continued to rock the country in the following hours.

[8]  It was against this background that the 1 News special update was broadcast just before 6pm that evening. The broadcast carried high public interest and provided information to New Zealanders following a major natural disaster. Members of the public rely on media sources for information about natural disasters and advice regarding their safety and what is happening around them. They have a right to know about the scale and impact of any event, so that they can act and prepare themselves accordingly. In this respect the media delivers an important public service and it is crucial that this is done in a timely way, as information becomes available.

[9]  Mr Morton’s complaint has been assessed having regard to this wider context.

Did the broadcast breach the accuracy standard?

[10]  The accuracy standard (Standard 9) states that broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure that news, current affairs and factual programming is accurate in relation to all material points of fact, and does not mislead. The objective of this standard is to protect audiences from being significantly misinformed.

The parties’ submissions

[11]  Mr Morton submitted:

  • TVNZ broadcast an inaccurate cause of death, and as a result ‘most of [New Zealand] still think [name] died of a heart attack’.
  • TVNZ was the first news source to report that his partner’s death was due to a heart attack, and other media coverage followed.
  • When TVNZ became aware that reports indicating the cause of death was a heart attack were incorrect, it took no action.
  • TVNZ should retract their cause-of-death statement and replace it with correct information regarding his partner’s cause of death.
  • He was in possession of an interim report that indicated that the cause of death was something other than a heart attack. (We understand the Coroner is yet to deliver its official report on the death.)

[12]  In its submissions in response to the complaint TVNZ said:

  • It accepted that the cause of death was not a heart attack, and this information was incorrect.
  • However, all reasonable efforts were made to ensure accuracy in the circumstances. This was a developing situation during a natural disaster where information was constantly changing and being updated.
  • The statement that ‘there’s been another quake-related death at Mt Lyford; that’s after someone suffered a heart attack’ was understood by 1 News to be correct from conversations with police and St John Ambulance in the early hours of 14 November 2016. It was relying on information from reputable organisations as it was best known at that time, and it had no reason to question this information. 1 News was entitled to use this information in the context of its ongoing live coverage of unfolding events connected to the aftermath of the earthquake.
  • As more information came to light, 1 News became aware that reports of the cause of death being a heart attack were incorrect. As a result the full 1 News 6pm bulletin was amended to report only that ‘two people have died as a result of quakes’, as this was all that was known at that time.
  • It is in the public interest to advise viewers of the number of reported casualties following a crisis or natural disaster. It assists viewers to understand the severity of the event, develop empathy for those involved, and stimulate contributions and other assistance.
  • As a result of the broadcast, viewers were likely to have believed that a person (Mr Morton’s partner was not identified) suffered a heart attack as a result of the earthquake. However, the material point being made was the loss of life caused by the earthquake, rather than the specific circumstances of that person’s death. Viewers would therefore not have been misled as to the fact that the death was quake-related.

Our analysis

[13]  At the outset we acknowledge that the Kaikoura earthquake had a significant impact on New Zealanders, in particular the friends and family of the individuals who died. In particular, we recognise that this has clearly been a distressing time for the complainant and we extend our sympathy to him. We understand that his distress has been compounded by what he considers to be incorrect reporting of how his partner died.

[14]  Nevertheless, it is not the role of this Authority to make an official finding regarding the cause of death of certain individuals. We understand that Mr Morton’s partner’s death has been referred to the Coroner and that the findings have not yet been released. The broadcaster has however accepted that the statement that Mr Morton’s partner suffered from a heart attack was incorrect.

[15]  We have therefore considered whether, in the circumstances, the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to ensure the accuracy of the statement in the item by relying on information provided to it by emergency services.

[16]  The information given by police and St John Ambulance to the TVNZ news desk, and emailed to the TVNZ newsroom on the morning of 14 November 2016, was as follows:

A person is understood to have died from a quake-related heart attack in North Christchurch this morning... although police wouldn’t confirm – they told 1 News they had spoken with St John, who are fairly adamant the patient has died.

[17]  During the day, many other major media outlets reported that a quake-related death had occurred at Mt Lyford after a person suffered a heart attack.2

[18]  Emergency services such NZ Police and St John Ambulance are legitimate and traditionally reliable sources which are commonly used by media to provide information about events such as the number and nature of casualties in a natural disaster. We consider it was reasonable, at the time of a natural disaster, for the broadcaster to seek and rely upon information obtained from these sources, particularly as it worked to provide timely updates to New Zealanders about the impact and severity of the earthquake.

[19]  During a natural disaster, it is necessary to disseminate information to the public as soon as it comes to hand, in the interests of public safety and to ensure that the public remains informed about the scale of the event. Precise verification of information may not always be possible in these evolving circumstances before a broadcast goes to air. It is for this reason that the accuracy standard requires that, at the very least, broadcasters take reasonable steps to ensure accuracy. What is important is that media outlets work to continually update the information being disseminated as more detail or verification becomes available.

[20]  Here, we acknowledge that TVNZ could have reported the information regarding the cause of death differently, for example by saying, ‘we understand that [the death] is after someone suffered a heart attack’. This would have indicated to viewers that this was an evolving situation and that the information regarding the death was the best available at the time, but required further verification. However we note that TVNZ ceased to report the heart attack once it became aware that earlier reports of the cause of death may have been incorrect. Subsequent broadcasts simply reported the death as ‘quake-related’.

[21]  In these circumstances, we do not uphold the accuracy complaint.

Was the action taken by TVNZ, in upholding Mr Morton’s fairness complaint, sufficient?

[22]  The fairness standard (Standard 11) states that broadcasters should deal fairly with any person or organisation taking part or referred to in a programme.

The parties’ submissions

[23]  Mr Morton submitted:

  • The incorrect cause of death broadcast during the special news update was ‘very degrading for [his partner], family and friends’.
  • The broadcaster should apologise to him and to his partner’s family and friends.
  • While TVNZ upheld this part of his complaint, ‘nothing has happened’.

[24]  TVNZ found that, as the broadcast incorrectly stated the cause of death was a heart attack, it caused unnecessary stress for Mr Morton and other family members, resulting in a breach of the standard (even though his partner was not identified). TVNZ unreservedly apologised to Mr Morton for the distress caused, and for the process he had gone through to try to establish the source of the information. It also offered its condolences for his loss.

Our analysis

[25]  The fairness standard applies only to individuals who participate, or are referred to, in a broadcast. The fairness standard does not apply to deceased individuals and so cannot be considered in relation to Mr Morton’s partner.3 Mr Morton and his partner’s other family and friends did not take part in the broadcast and were not referred to, so the fairness standard also does not apply to them.

[26]  Accordingly, the fairness standard is not applicable in this case, though we acknowledge the broadcaster’s efforts to address Mr Morton’s concerns in this respect, and its apology to him.

[27]  The complaint in relation to the fairness standard and the action taken by TVNZ is not upheld.

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
Member
19 April 2017

 

Appendix

The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:

1      Gary Morton’s formal complaint – 8 December 2016
2      TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 24 January 2017
3      Mr Morton’s referral to the Authority – 5 February 2017
4      TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 10 March 2017
5      Mr Morton’s final comments – 12 March 2017

 

 


1 http://www.geonet.org.nz/quakes/2016p858000 

2 For example, see NZ Earthquake: What we know (7.21am, 14 November 2016, Newshub); Deadly earthquake: Two dead, hundreds of aftershocks (7.57am, 14 November 2016, NZ Herald); Earthquake: Deaths, major damage after severe 7.5 quake hits Hanmer Springs, tsunami warning issued (14 November 2016, Stuff)

3 The same applies to the privacy standard. See, for example, Kiro and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2007-111