Christine Kuch vs. Randburg Sun
Mon, Mar 19, 2018
Ruling by the Press Ombud
17 March 2018
Christine Kuch; complaining in her personal capacity
Headlines; dates; pages
SPCA under fire (page 1); continued to page 9, Roller coaster as woman fights SPCA (19 January 2018)
SPCA in the spotlight again (page 3: February 2)
SPCA responds to allegations made; and Families still seek answers on their dogs’ whereabouts (page 3: February 9)
All, except for the last text
Author of article
In general, Kuch complains that the reportage was unbalanced, faulty, unfair, and misleading.
Being more specific, she says that the:
· pictures of a dog in the first story were misleading;
· journalist’s research regarding the content of his story was inadequate as it omitted material information;
· SPCA’s response was not placed prominently enough; and
· reportage sensationalized matters, as the events in question already took place in October 2017.
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.”
Kuch complains that the reportage was unbalanced (read: written from the perspective of the people whose pets were involved), unfair, faulty and misleading.
Eloff says both Cheng and the Mlolomba family told the newspaper that the SPCA had not been giving them straight answers as to what had happened to their pets. It eventually transpired that both dogs had been put down. She says the SPCA declined to respond, despite the fact that it had acknowledged receipt of the journalist’s questions.
In addition, after Randburg SPCA had placed a media statement on Facebook, the newspaper duly published that text in full; on February 9 the newspaper followed this up by publishing the gist of that statement.
Regarding the newspaper’s attempts to verify its information and to get comment from Randburg SPCA, Eloff says the newspaper:
· consulted with the Cheng and the Mlolomba families;
· perused correspondence between the SPCA and the families;
· phoned the SPCA to obtain comment on the allegations;
· visited the premises, advising them it was in their interest to provide comment (this time there was some comment, which was included in full);
· afforded the SPCA various opportunities to comment before the second story was published (again, without success); and
· published a media statement by Randburg SPCA on Facebook.
She further remarks that the newspaper has fulfilled its duty to expose allegations of irregularities at a public institution, adding that at no point did the Randburg SPCA deny the allegations made – instead, its response featured insults aimed at the complainants and the newspaper.
Eloff denies that the publication has misled the public; on the contrary, she says, since publication more similar allegations came to light – which the newspaper is currently investigating.
Randburg Sun clearly went out of its way to obtain the local SPCA’s views in order to ensure balanced reporting. The fact that it had not received proper comment is not the publication’s fault. It is therefore a bit rich to have expected the newspaper to write from the SPCA’s perspective, if the latter was largely absent – the only perspective that remained was that of the dog owners.
If anybody is to blame for this situation, it is the SPCA itself and not the newspaper.
In any event, the first story did carry comment by Randburg SPCA manager Craig Rudman, whom the journalist quoted quite extensively.
Kuch complains that the publication of the picture on the front page was misleading.
· the surrounding words gave the false impression that the picture had been taken at the SPCA (as the previous paragraph ended with a reference to the SPCA and the opening words below the visual were “Randburg SPCA Manager Craig Rudman”);
· it took careful reading to establish that the boy in the picture actually never visited the SPCA; and
· the prominent placement of the picture added to the problem.
“The selection of this visual, its prominent placement and the context of surrounding wording … [misled] the reader,” she submits.
Eloff replies that the image in question “was not given any particular prominence”. She adds, “In general, photos are not read as part of the text it accompanies. It is Randburg Sun’s opinion that no reasonable reader would have interpreted the photo to mean that Tyson had been at the SPCA.”
If it is true, as Eloff argues, that photographs are generally “not read as part of the text it accompanies”, the publishing of pictures would be superfluous and indeed meaningless. On the contrary, a picture is meant to complement the text that it accompanies.
It is also not true that the photograph did not enjoy “any particular prominence”- it was the main photograph on page 1.
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.
Kuch complains that the stories ignored the by-laws, Pounds Act or legal situation, including the Animals Protection Act definition of an owner (information which was readily available), which were “key elements which explain what occurred and are an essential element to give balance to readers”.
Eloff says the crux of the allegations against the Randburg SPCA was not applicable legislation, and therefore reporting on legalities would not have addressed the heart of the matter – which was that specific allegations were levelled against the SPCA. “Publishing legal principles or excerpts from laws would not have served as comment on the SPCA’s behalf and was therefore not required,” she submits.
I agree with Eloff on this issue – legalities are one thing, and allegations of immoral conduct quite another (which is not to say that those allegations were true, of course).
Not the same prominence
Kuch says that the first article was published on the front page, while the response from the SPCA Randburg only featured on page 9. She adds that this “response” published was insufficient, as it contained extracts only, with additional input from the complainants, and that it did not adequately redress the matter.
Eloff says in its February 9 edition – the first edition to follow Randburg SPCA’s Facebook statement – the gist of Randburg SPCA’s response was published on page 3 (not page 9) – and the front page contained a teaser that directed readers to that page.
She points out that the SPCA’s response was five pages long and says it would have been practically impossible to publish all of it. Moreover, it contained defamatory statements against the two complainants featured in Randburg Sun’s previous reports. “In light of the defamatory statements, comment had to be sought from these individuals and published,” she submits.
Eloff adds that the publication nonetheless informed its readers that there was more to the SPCA’s response, and also that it could be found on Facebook.
Randburg Sun published a summary of the SPCA’s response on the second most important page in the newspaper – page 3. Also, the response was published at the top of that page, and covered by far most of the space on that page.
That, to my mind, was indeed proper prominence.
Besides, the publication has fulfilled its duty as it went out of its way to carry the SPCA’s response (even twice).
Kuch says the events in question already took place in October 2017, yet it was only reported in February of this year. “This in itself, in my opinion, is sensationalising the issues,” she argues.
Eloff replies that the affected individuals have tried everything in their power in the months following the incidents to find out what really had happened to their pets. “The allegations were that several members within the SPCA were involved in covering up what truly happened. It took the affected families time to investigate and, accordingly, time lapsed between the incidents and publication,” she says.
Kuch’s argument boils down to the conviction that the longer ago something happened, the less newsworthy it becomes. That may be true in certain circumstances – but certainly not in this case. The matter was of public importance, and the newspaper had to fulfil its duty to inform its readers accordingly – which is exactly what it did do.
The reportage in the first story created the false impression that the pictures were taken at the 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.
Randburg Sun is:
· cautioned for not having clarified in a caption that the pictures of Tyson the dog were not taken at Randburg Sun; 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.
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.