Melomed Hospital (Mitchell's Plain) vs. People's Post


Wed, Feb 20, 2013

 

 

Ruling by the Press Ombudsman

February 20, 2013

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Ashfaque Khan, on behalf of Melomed Hospital in Mitchell’s Plain (Cape Town), and the People’s Post newspaper.

Complaint

Melomed Hospital complains about a story on page 6 in the People’s Post on 27 November 2012 and headlined Hospital not wheelchair friendly.

Melomed complains that the:

·         story omitted or down-played its response regarding suitable access for wheelchair-bound patients;

·         story falsely said that it had failed to respond to the reporter’s queries;

·         journalist did not accept its invitation to inspect the access for wheelchair-bound patients; and

·         headline was misleading.

Analysis

The story, written by Laila Majiet, was based on a complaint by a certain Louis Smith (66) that the hospital did not provide sufficient or proper access to wheelchair patients.

Response omitted, down-played

Melomed complains that the story omitted or played down its response to Majiet regarding suitable access for wheelchair-bound patients.

I broadened this part of the complaint to include all related references to alleged problems regarding the handling of incoming wheelchair patients (as correspondence from both parties include this anyway0.

In order to evaluate this part of the complaint, I need to look at the relevant questions that Majiet posed to Melomed as well as the hospital’s responses to these questions. I present the answers in italics, and then compare them to if and how Majiet reported these matters. I also deal with the questions not in chronological, but rather in logical order.

Question 1: “Why are there no disabled parking bays (sic) for patients in the parking lot at the front of the hospital?” …Melomed…does not own the parking in front of the hospital, even the pavement is the property of the municipality, as such we have no jurisdiction over the allocations of parking bays for disabled persons…

The story stated it as fact that there were no parking bays for disabled patients; it also reported the hospital’s response to this question.

Melomed does not contest the fact that there were no such parking bays.

Question 2: “Has hospital management ever approached the City of Cape Town to provide parking bays for disabled patients?” We place on record that we have never had to engage or approach City Council pertaining to this matter as we have never had any complaints …

before. Over the past 25 years since the building was constructed…hundreds if not thousands of patients who required wheelchair access have had access to the building without experiencing any problems or difficulty.

The story did report the first sentence of Melomed’s response – which in my view adequately summed up the rest of its answer.

Melomed adds that the newspaper conflated its non-request for the allocation of disabled parking bays as a refusal to do so and that it therefore misrepresented the hospital in the process.

I cannot find any evidence in the story that might support this accusation. The story merely said that Melomed “has never approached the City to request that provisions for parking bays for disabled people be made” – nowhere did Majiet state or imply that the hospital “refused” to do so.

Question 3: “What is the hospital’s policy on security guards and porters assisting patients arriving in wheelchairs?” Out security guards and porters do assist patients in and out of vehicles… We run a 24 hour emergency unit and…our staff are trained to assist wheelchair and non-ambulant patients… Only cars unattended that are illegally parked or cars that choose to stop in the middle of the street require management from security.

The story stated:

·         that it was “understood” that security guards and porters “have been instructed” not to assist wheelchair patients;

·         Melomed’s statement to the effect that it did assist such patients in and out of vehicles; and

·         that Smith told Majiet: “Before I can even get out of the car, security guards are telling us we can’t drop off at the entrance.”

 

I note that the article only mentioned the first sentence of Melomed’s response. The addition of the gist of the other two sentences would have been helpful as indeed it would have added some context to the matter. However, this is not so serious that it can be construed as a breach of the Press Code.

However, more serious matters are at stake here:

·         Clearly, the story relied on one source only (Smith). If Majiet tried to independently verify Smith’s accusations, as she should have done, she certainly did not portray it in her story;

·         It is bad journalistic practice to publish a negative statement (by one source) and then try to “balance” it with comment from the other side – reporters should first evaluate the fairness of each statement before publishing it; and

·         The allegation that security guards and porters “have been instructed” not to assist wheelchair patients is preposterous, unfair and certainly not reasonably true. Of all the problems in the story, this part is probably the most serious.

In conclusion, the story did not omit or downplay the bulk of Melomed’s responses. However, other issues raised above need some sort of a decision and action from this office.

Failed to respond to queries

The story said that “Melomed failed to respond to emails questioning why they had never engaged with the City …”

Melomed denies that this is true.

People’s Post concedes that it statement was not correct as Melomed did provide it with a response. The newspaper offers to apologise for this mistake.

The story indeed contradicted itself as it had already reported the hospital’s response on this very issue. It is difficult to comprehend this contradiction.

Invitation rejected

Melomed complains that Majiet failed to accept its invitation to inspect the access for wheelchair-bound patients to show her that there were no steps and three lifts to the renal unit.

People’s Post says that its reporter inspected the area outside the main entrance and found that the hospital did not have wheelchair ramps – although access to the entrance for the disabled was “via a lowering of the kerb”.

I have little doubt that Majiet should have accepted Melomed’s offer. That would have given her important insight into whether wheelchair access was easy and to evaluate the information that Smith provided. If the hospital had refused to show her around she would have been justified in relying on her inspection alone.

My only conclusion is that the reporter did not obtain her news honestly and fairly in this regard.

Headline misleading

Melomed complains that the headline did not reflect the contents of the story (as it was published as fact when it should have been attributed to one patient who complained to the newspaper).

The newspaper replies that the headline was a reflection of Smith’s words.

In that case, surely the headline should have indicated such (for example, by using inverted commas). Instead, it was presented as fact – contrary to what the Press Code requires.

Again, this caused Melomed unnecessary harm.

General comments

Majiet overstated matters several times.

Here are examples:

·         The first two words of the story mentioned “disabled patients” (plural) who were “fed up about a lack of access facilities” at Melomed – while the story only mentioned one such patient;

·         Majiet repeated this mistake by referring to “frustrated disabled people” (again the plural);

·         The reporter continued this trend by stating that the hospital did not respond to “emails” (plural) regarding this matter – according to documents at my disposal she only once asked the hospital this specific question; and

·         The statement that Melomed did not have wheelchair ramps (outside the building) was accurate, but unfair as easy access to the entrance for the disabled was via a lowering of the kerb.

In general, the newspaper’s reportage was partly selective, partly inaccurate, and partly unfair, creating the misleading impression that Melomed had disregarded the comfort and convenience of its disabled patients. Surely, this reportage has caused the hospital unnecessary harm.                                                    

Finding

Response omitted

The parts of the complaint with regards to Melomed’s the alleged omission and/or downplaying of the hospital’s responses are dismissed.

People’s Post did not verify the information from Smith and it did not report this fact. This is in breach of Art. 1.4 of the Press Code that says: “Where there is reason to doubt the accuracy of a report and it is practicable to verify the accuracy thereof, it shall be verified. Where it has not been practicable to verify the accuracy of a report, this shall be mentioned in such report.”

The allegation that security guards and porters “have been instructed” not to assist wheelchair patients was unfair to Melomed and in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Code: “The press shall be obliged to report news…fairly.”

Failed to respond to queries

The following statement is false and unfair: “Melomed failed to respond to emails questioning why they had never engaged with the City …”

This is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”

Invitation rejected

Majiet failed to accept Melomed’s invitation to inspect the access for wheelchair-bound patients.

This is in breach of Art. 2.1 that says: “News should be gathered…honestly and fairly…”

Headline misleading

The headline stated an opinion as fact.

This is in breach of Art. 11.1 that 11.1 states: “Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report…in question.”

General comments

The consistent use of the plural with regards to disabled people as well as the reference to “emails” regarding a specific question was inaccurate and amounted to exaggeration and misrepresentation.

This is in breach of:

·         Art. 1.1 of the Press Code: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully (and) accurately...”; and

·         Art. 1.2: “News shall be presented … without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by…exaggeration or misrepresentation…”

The statement that Melomed did not have wheelchair ramps (outside the building) was unfair.

This is in breach of Art. 1.1 that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news…fairly.”

Sanction

People’s Post is directed to apologise to Melomed for:

·         unreasonably and unfairly stating that the hospital “instructed” its personnel not to assist wheelchair patients when getting out of vehicles – causing its reputation unnecessary harm;

·         not independently verifying the information that it obtained from one source and for not mentioning that it did not do so;

·         inaccurately and unfairly stating that the hospital failed to respond to a question why it had never engaged with the City on this matter;

·         failing to accept the hospital’s invitation to inspect the access for wheelchair-bound patients;

·         misleadingly stating in its headline an opinion as fact, causing the hospital unnecessary harm;

·         untruthfully and inaccurately using the plural with regards to disabled people and by referring to “emails” regarding a specific question (when there was only one in each instance), which amounted to exaggeration and misrepresentation; and

·         unfairly stating that Melomed did not have wheelchair ramps (outside the building) as it did provide easy access to the building.

The newspaper is directed to publish the following text on page 6, with a headline that contains both the name of the hospital and the word “apology/apologises”.

Beginning of text: 

People’s Post apologises to Melomed Hospital (Mitchell’s Plain) for reporting a story that was partly selective, partly inaccurate and partly unfair, creating the misleading impression that Melomed had disregarded the comfort and convenience of its disabled patients – thereby causing the hospital unnecessary harm.

Melomed Hospital lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman about a story that we published on 27 November 2012 and headlined Hospital not wheelchair friendly. The story, written by Laila Majiet, was based on a complaint by a certain Louis Smith (66) that the hospital did not provide sufficient or proper access to wheelchair patients.

Ombudsman Johan Retief singled out the unreasonable and unfair allegation that Melomed’s security guards and porters “have been instructed” not to assist wheelchair patients. He said that this claim was preposterous, unfair and certainly not reasonably true. “Of all the problems in the story, this part is probably the most serious.”

He also directed us to apologise to Melomed for:

·         not independently verifying the information that it obtained from one source and for not mentioning that it did not do so;

·         inaccurately and unfairly stating that the hospital failed to respond to a question why it had never engaged with the City on this matter;

·         failing to accept the hospital’s invitation to inspect the access for wheelchair-bound patients;

·         misleadingly stating in its headline an opinion as fact, causing the hospital unnecessary harm;

·         untruthfully and inaccurately using the plural with regards to disabled people and by referring to “emails” regarding a specific question (when there was only one in each instance), which amounted to exaggeration and misrepresentation; and

·         unfairly stating that Melomed did not have wheelchair ramps (outside the building) as it did provide easy access to the building.

We unreservedly apologise for these mistakes.

Retief dismissed the part of the complaint that was about omitting or down-playing the bulk of Melomed’s responses to our questions.

Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding

End of text

Appeal

Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Adjudication Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman