New Zealand Law Society - Stuff rebuked over misleading court report

Stuff rebuked over misleading court report

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The Media Council has criticised media company Stuff over a news report that included a closing submission and portrayed it as evidence in court.  It is the second time the council has upheld a complaint about the same media outlet over the misreporting of court material.

On January 31 Stuff published a brief article headlined Christchurch soldier found not guilty of rape. The item was promoted by the tagline “A jury accepted a woman consented to sex after drinking and going to bed to sleep”.

The article included some background and statements from the defence counsel and the prosecution. In upholding the complaint the Media Council expressed concern that the report did not make it clear the statements from the counsel were taken from the closings. They were not evidence; they were submissions. It says readers would have taken them as statements of fact.

Stuff has admitted that the tagline was incorrect. Rather the jury accepted that they could not be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant did not have a reasonable belief to her consenting. 

Also, the council’s decision says, the statements selected for the brief report misled readers. The case turned on the level of intoxication of the complainant and whether consent was given.  The story did not cover this angle.

The story stated “the complainant told the police she was not certain it was [the soldier] because she could not open her eyes but told one of the partygoers she did not see his face because it was too dark”. However, the identity of the soldier was not disputed, nor was that intercourse between him and the complainant took place.  By relying on the defence lawyer’s closing statement, rather than the full evidence, the soldier’s involvement was inaccurately questioned and readers misinformed.

The Media Council has previously rebuked Stuff for reliance on closing addresses for its reportage of a court case. It says the media has special privilege to report court on behalf of the people, but with this privilege comes a high degree of responsibility to report accurately and fairly. This report did not do that and the complaint was upheld.