James Davis vs False Bay Echo

Complainant: James Davis

Lodged by: James Davis

Article:  Spending on Astroturf not fair play, parents say

Author of article: Michelle Saffer

Date: 8 December 2011

Respondent: False Bay Echo

Complaint
Mr James Davis complains about a page 4 story in the False Bay Echo, published on 27 October 2011 and headlined Spending on Astroturf not fair play, parents say.
Davis complains that the story incorrectly states that:
  • Fish Hoek High School (FHHS) and Fish Hoek Primary School (FHPS) would need to loan R8 million for an Astroturf hockey field; and
  • FHPS would be the only primary school to have Astroturf facilities.
He adds that the story:
  • omits to report that the location of the field at the FHPS has always been the favourite site and that both schools would have use of the field;
  • is biased in that it does not contain opinions of parents who are in favour of Astroturf; and
  • contradicts itself by stating that additional money should be used for other issues.
Analysis
The story, written by Michelle Saffer, says that FHHS and FHPS were planning to spend R8 million on an Astroturf hockey field – and that parents felt that the money could be put to better use. Saffer writes that the idea was put to the parent bodies of both schools and that it was approved by both, subject to a business plan. The story then quotes some parents who were opposed to the idea, after which both principals defended the decision.
I shall now look at the merits of the complaint:
R8 million for Astroturf
The story says that the two schools planned to spend R8 million on an Astroturf hockey field.
Davis complains that this is incorrect – the amount of R8 million, he says, also include expenditure on the swimming pool and on classrooms.
The editor, Chantel Erfort, says that subsequent to Davis’ complaint, she asked Saffer to double-check the costs with the principal of FHHS.
Saffer then reported back, saying that:
  • the principal said that he had “no problems” with the story (excluding the headline);
  • an amount of R6 million (not R8 million) was presented at the meeting of parents as the projected cost of an Astroturf field – if it was built right then;
  • it was made clear that the cost of Astroturf was rising by R100 000 per month; and
  • the principal told her telephonically that an Astroturf field recently built at another school in the vicinity amounted to R6.7 million.
Here are my considerations:
  • I accept the information given to me by the newspaper as obtained from the principal as accurate, namely that R6 million was presented to the parents as the cost of the hockey field;
  • This means that the amount of R8 million mentioned in the story is inaccurate;
  • The statement that the cost of Astroturf was rising by R100 000 per month is irrelevant – the fact remains that the amount presented to the parents was R6 million (and not R8 million);
  • Even if the cost was rising by R100 000 per month, it would then take another 20 months for the cost to rise from R6 million to R8 million; and
  • The principal’s response that he had “no problem” with the story is puzzling (read R8 million over against R6 million) – I certainly have a problem with these conflicting amounts.
I therefore conclude that the story misleadingly states that the schools planned to spend an amount of R8 million on Astroturf.
The only primary school to have Astroturf facilities
The story quotes a parent who reportedly said that FHPS “would be the only primary school to have an Astroturf facility at their school despite the fact that many of the more wealthy primary schools are content with grass fields”.
Davis complains that the story does not mention the fact that numerous primary schools across South Africa have Astroturf facilities.
The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint.
Consider the fact that the story does not state it as a fact that FHPS is the only primary school that has this facility – it quotes a source who reportedly uttered these words. Even if this source is wrong, s/he has a right to his/her opinion, and nothing stood in the newspaper’s way to publish this opinion. I certainly am not expecting the journalist to have checked if the content of what her source said is accurate. That would have made Saffer’s task almost impossible.
Omitting important information
Davis complains that the story does not report that the location of the field at the FHPS has always been the favourite site and that both schools would have use of the field.
The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint.
The first part of this complaint is neither here nor there – I do not think that the location of the field is essential to the story.
Secondly, it is indeed clear from the story that both schools would have use of the field. The story states that parents at both schools felt that the money could have been spent better, and also quotes both principals. There can be only one reason for this. Also, consider the following sentence: “The plan is for both schools and children and clubs from the broader community to use the field…” (emphasis added)
Enough said.
Biased
Davis complains that the story is biased in that it does not contain opinions of parents who are in favour of Astroturf.
The newspaper disagrees. It says that the story mentions three people who were against the Astroturf development, and two, “quoted extensively”, who express opinions in favour of this matter. (The editor adds that she did publish Davis’ letter, as well as those of other readers – for and against the proposed development.)
I agree with the newspaper, and add that:
  • although the story starts with “parents” who were unhappy, it later explicitly states that “some parents” were questioning the matter – clearly, the message is that not all parents were against the development;
  • the story later quantifies the phrase “some parents” by stating that, at FHPS, 171 voted for the plan and 4 against, and at FHHS, only one out of 78 parents was not in favour of the proposal.
This brings balance to the story.
Although the story says that “critics” complained that only a small percentage of parents attended the meetings, the fact remains that the figures mentioned above should have portrayed the message that by far the majority of parents was in favour of the proposed new field. The fact that the story quotes a few sources who were against the plan and not parents who were for the plan (only principals) does not negate this argument.
Swimming pool, upgrading of classrooms ‘contradictory’
The story says that:
  • the schools plan to spend R8 million on an Astroturf hockey field;
  • FHPS “also approved spending money on upgrading tennis and netball courts, heating and modifying the school pool and eight additional interactive white boards”; and
  • FHHS approved additional spending on lighting in the hall, educational technology and a swimming pool.
Davis complains that this is contradictory. He argues: “The article says that the monies should not be spent on the astroturf but rather spent on the upgrading of other facilities. We however read later in the article that part of monies approved for the budget include the upgrading of other facilities as well.”
The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint.
To me, this is not contradictory. The story says that the Astroturf hockey field would cost R8 million. Later, Saffer adds that FHPS “also approved” money for other matters. Nowhere does the story state that R8 million represented the full budget.
Finding
R8 million for Astroturf
The story misleadingly states that the schools planned to spend an amount of R8 million on Astroturf. This is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news…accurately…”
The only primary school to have Astroturf facilities
This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Omitting important information
This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Biased
This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Swimming pool, upgrading of classrooms ‘contradictory’
This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Sanction
The newspaper is reprimanded for inaccurately stating that the schools planned to spend R8 million on the development of an Astroturf hockey field.
The newspaper is directed to publish the following text on page 4:
BEGINNING OF TEXT
False Bay Echo was reprimanded by the office of the Press Ombudsman for inaccurately reporting that Fish Hoek Primary School (FHPS) and Fish Hoek High School (FHHS) planned to spend R8 million on the development on an Astroturf hockey field.
This came after Mr James Davis lodged a complaint with the Ombudsman’s office about a story that we published on October 27 that was headlined Spending on Astroturf not fair play, parents say.
The story, written by Michelle Saffer, said that parents felt that the R8 million could be put to better use. We reported that the idea was approved by both schools, subject to a business plan. Saffer quoted some parents who were opposed to the idea, after which both principals then defended the proposed development.
Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief noted that Saffer herself stated in her response to the complaint that an amount of R6 million – and not R8 million – to fund the Astroturf project was put forward to the parents; he concluded that the reportage was therefore not accurate on this issue.
Retief dismissed the rest of Davis’ complaint. This refers to:
  • the statement that the school would be the only primary school to have Astroturf facilities – he said that we merely quoted a source to this effect;
  • the omission of the “fact” that the location of the field at the FHPS has always been the favourite site and that both schools would have use of the field – he said the location issue was irrelevant to the story, and remarked that the story does say that both schools would be able to use the field;
  • bias, as the story allegedly did not contain opinions of parents who were in favour of Astroturf – he argued that the story had enough balance; and
  • an alleged contradiction where the story refers to money that was additionally approved for other matters – he stated that the story did not present the R8 million as the full budget.
Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2011) for the full finding.
END OF TEXT
If there is no appeal by any of the parties, this text should be published before the end of this year.
Appeal
Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman