Randburg SPCA vs. Randburg Sun


Fri, Mar 23, 2018

Ruling by the Press Ombud

23 March 2018

PARTICULARS

 

Complainant

 

 

Management Committee (“Mancom”) of Randburg SPCA

 

 

Lodged by

 

 

Ms Anna Jacobs

 

 

Headlines; dates; pages

 

 

SPCA under fire (page 1); continued to page 9, Roller coaster as woman fights SPCA (19 January 2018)

and

SPCA in the spotlight again (page 3: February 2)

and

SPCA responds to allegations made (page 3: February 9)

 

 

Online

 

 

Yes

 

Author of article

 

 

Sonwabile Antonie

 

Respondent

 

 

Helene Eloff

Complaint                                            

Mancom complains that Randburg Sun:

·         did not give it sufficient time to respond with regards to the first article, did not afford it a right of reply to the second one, and that the statement in that article to the contrary was out of context and therefore misleading;

·         did not thoroughly research the matter;

·         misled the public with the false inference that the pictures used in the first story were taken at its premises;

·         reported selectively on its media statement, changed the context, and attempted to infer that what it had been saying was questionable (regarding the third article, published on February 9); and

·         indirectly inferred that it might have been involved in criminal or unethical activities such as dog fighting or breeding.

In conclusion, Mancom complains that the newspaper has deliberately damaged its reputation with its false, “extraordinary” biased and misleading reportage.

The texts; pictures

The articles were about two dog owners, Ms Ellen Cheng (with a dog called Tyson), and the Mlolomba family (their dog was called Cosmo), whose pets could not be accounted for after they had been taken in by Randburg SPCA – and who allegedly got conflicting reports from the SPCA as to what had actually happened to those animals. The journalist reported allegations of mistreatment of the animals against the SPCA.

On the front page of the first story, the newspaper published a picture of Tyson in a kennel behind a mesh gate, with a child standing outside the gate. This picture did not carry a caption. The story continued to page 9, which contained two more pictures of this dog. The first photograph was of the dog only, captioned, “Tyson was taken to the Randburg SPCA in late October last year”. In the other picture, immediately next to it, the boy appeared with the dog (again in a kennel); the caption stated, “Tyson visited by Ellen Cheng’s son Devesh Kunchala.”

The arguments

Right of reply

Jacobs submits that the newspaper did not inform the SPCA that it was going to publish a second story. She says the only article which the SPCA was requested to comment on was the first one – to which Mancom was given insufficient time to submit comment (and was in fact not informed of the intended date of publication of the article). She denies that Randburg Sun sought a reply from Mancom or from general management with regards to the second story, as stated in that article.

Eloff replies that the newspaper e-mailed both the SPCA’s general manager and three members of the Mancom on January 24, asking for their side of the follow-up story – upon which the SPCA confirmed that it would respond.

She says that, on January 30, the newspaper reminded a member of Mancom that it was going to print. “They were explicitly warned that the paper was to publish a follow-up report with their comments and advised that if they could not respond by the time the newspaper went to print, Randburg Sun would have to publish a follow-up article without their comments,” Eloff continues.

Eloff submits that Randburg SPCA did not respond to any of the newspaper’s questions, choosing rather to respond on their own Facebook page (after the paper had gone to print with its second story).

She says that, even while it is the newspaper’s policy not to take information for stories from Facebook, it nevertheless decided to publish the SPCA’s media statement, as updating the story was important.

In conclusion, Eloff says the newspaper’s intention never was to attack the SPCA – it was given ample opportunity to respond, and its questions were deliberately phrased in a positive way.  However, not once have the Randburg SPCA denied the allegations levelled against it. “In refusing to answer even the least incriminating questions, the organisation made the media’s job incredibly difficult in this case. Yet it is the opinion of Randburg Sun that responsible, balanced journalism prevailed in incredibly challenging circumstances,” she argues.

Analysis

On January 24, more than a week before the second story was published, Antonie sent an e-mail to Jacobs and others at Randburg SPCA, informing the organisation that he was working on a follow-up article.

He added (unedited):

·         “If you are not able to answer a question or will do so at a later stage then indicate so next to the question,” and

·         “The aforementioned questions are listed below, If possible, please do provide answers to the questions by Friday, 26 January . I know that there are a lot of questions, but I want to make sure that I have a very good understanding of the issues at hand so that I will be able to write a well-balance and fair article.”

Jacobs replied the next day as follows (unedited): “Please be advised that I am in the process of compiling a response to your below questions and will revert back as soon as it completed.”

This response never materialised.

The complaint that the newspaper did not inform Randburg SPCA that it was going to publish a second story, and never asked it for comment, is therefore rather puzzling.

Moreover, the first story carried comment by Randburg SPCA manager Craig Rudman, whom the journalist quoted quite extensively. Again, it is baffling that the newspaper did not give the organisation enough time to respond – while the article contained a quite detailed reply from its manager.

The statement in the second story that the newspaper gave Randburg SPCA the opportunity to comment but, despite acknowledging receipt of its questions and assuring the journalist of a response, none was forthcoming, was therefore justified.

I am satisfied that Randburg Sun went out of its way to obtain the local SPCA’s views in order to ensure balanced reporting.

No proper research

Mancom complains that Randburg Sun did not thoroughly research or investigate the rules and regulations that are enforced in all City Pounds, or legislation in this regard (including that the parties involved were legally entitled to privacy).

Eloff says investigating the rules and regulations would not have answered to the allegations. “Confirming the existence of policies and procedures is not the same as confirming that an organisation actually sticks to these rules and its ethical code,” she submits.

She adds that the public deserves to be informed about what is going on behind closed doors – simply stating that “the issues were dealt with internally and that the ‘matter is now considered closed’,” does not offer the public a satisfying answer to their questions, she argues.

Analysis

The issue addressed in the relevant stories was not in the first instance about applicable legislation, but rather about alleged immoral conduct. Put differently: Even if the article did reflect the relevant regulations in this regard, it would not have ensured that Randburg SPCA had actually adhered to them (as Eloff rightly argues).

I am not convinced that an investigation into legislation would have changed the thrust of the articles.

Pictures misleading

Mancom complains that the pictures in the first article have misled the public with the false suggestion that the photographs had been taken at its premises.

Eloff acknowledges that placing a caption with the front-page photo, providing context, would have been better than placing the photo without a caption.

Analysis

In a previous finding about the same issue, I have written the following:

“A careful perusal of the picture on the front page, as well as the two on page 9, indeed gave the impression that they were taken at the SPCA – the headlines on both pages referred to that organisation, and the story was about what could have transpired there. That was the context.

“Moreover, the captions on page 9 strengthened that impression – the first one specifically mentioned the SPCA, and even stated that the dog had been “taken to Randburg SPCA in later October last year”.

“In the other picture immediately next to it, the dog was again in a kennel, and the caption stated that it had been visited by the boy. The context – from the headline, the story as well as the caption next to it – was the SPCA. To expect readers to conclude that the pictures were not taken at the SPCA would have been a bridge too far.

“The place to have clarified this matter was in the captions – which did not materialize.

“However, I am not convinced that much turns on this issue. It was not in dispute that the dog was taken in at Randburg SPCA at some point – and it really seems immaterial where the pictures were taken as ultimately, this did not change the thrust of the story.

“Still, the impression was misleading, and the newspaper should clarify this matter.”

My argument stays the same.

Selective reporting of media statement

Mancom complains that the editor selected parts of its statement, changed the context, and attempted to infer that what the SPCA was saying was questionable.

Denying this complaint, Eloff says the report contained the gist of the SPCA’s Facebook statement. Besides, the newspaper clearly indicated that there was more to the SPCA’s response and that it could be found on Facebook.

She also denies that the newspaper has changed the context.

Analysis

Unfortunately, Jacobs does not explain why Mancom thinks that Randburg Sun reported selectively (which material parts the newspaper had left out), and how the reportage has changed the context.

Having studied both the organisation’s media statement and the newspaper’s coverage thereof, I am convinced that this part of the complaint has no leg to stand on.

On the contrary, I commend Randburg Sun for giving so much space in its print edition to Randburg SPCA’s statement, and also for publishing its full statement on its website.

Involved in criminal, unethical activities

Mancom complains that the second story indirectly inferred that it might have been involved in criminal or unethical activities, such as dog fighting or breeding.

Jacobs says this is an extremely serious allegation, especially considering who the SPCA is – and it was made by two people with no thought how this would affect the judicial processes that the organisation has pending for real offenders of animal cruelty. She submits that that was the reason why Mancom had declined the newspaper’s request to share its paperwork in any digital form for fear that the publication as well as the complainants could have manipulated the documentation.

Eloff replies that the paper’s source did not accuse the SPCA of taking a dog to a fighting ring – instead, that person expressed her fear that her dog may have ended up at a fighting ring or breeder. Moreover, various community members have aired their suspicions that SPCA dogs may sometimes end up at dog-fighting rings.

She adds that, although this allegation was not pinned to the SPCA, the newspaper did publish the organisation’s explicit denial of any such rumours.

Analysis

If the journalist did properly investigate the matter with regards to legislation, as Mancom clearly wanted and the newspaper elected not to do, it could have opened the door to a suggestion that Randburg SPCA might have been involved in criminal activities.

With respect, I am convinced that Mancom reads too much into the story, as there was no suggestion that the organisation had been involved in untoward activities such as dog fighting or breeding.

Deliberate damage to reputation

Mancom complains that the newspaper has deliberately damaged its reputation with its false, biased and misleading reportage – thereby jeopardising the reputation of an organization which relies on public support.

Eloff says the newspaper went above and beyond its obligations to obtain comment in order to produce a balanced (read: unbiased) report. She asks, “How does one give both sides to a story when one side keeps mum?”

Analysis

I have not found any trace of untruthful, inaccurate, misleading or biased reporting. It follows that I cannot conclude that it had deliberately damaged SPCA’s reputation.

Finding

The reportage in the first story created the false impression that the pictures were taken at Randburg SPCA. This was in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:

·         10.1: “[C]aptions to pictures shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report or picture in question”; and

·         10.3: “Pictures…shall not misrepresent or mislead…”

The rest of the complaint is dismissed.

Seriousness of breaches                                              

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of the Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1 – minor errors which do not change the thrust of the story), serious breaches (Tier 2), and serious misconduct (Tier 3).                                             

The impression that the pictures of the dog were taken at the SPCA did not change the thrust of the story, which is why this breach of the Code should be classified as a Tier 1 offence.

Sanction

Randburg Sun is:

·         cautioned for not having clarified in a caption that the pictures of Tyson the dog were not taken at Randburg SPCA; and

·         directed to clarify this matter.

The newspaper is requested to publish this clarification on top of page 3, as well as on its website where the first story is published.

The text should:

·         be published at the earliest opportunity after the time for an application for leave to appeal has lapsed or, in the event of such an application, after that ruling;

·     refer to the complaint that was lodged with this office;

·     end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”; and

·     be prepared by the publication and approved by me.

Appeal

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

Johan Retief

Press Ombud