BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Pask and Mediaworks TV Ltd - 2019-057 (18 November 2019)

Members
  • Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
  • Paula Rose
  • Susie Staley
Dated
Complainant
  • Laurence Pask
Number
2019-057
Programme
Newshub
Broadcaster
MediaWorks TV Ltd
Channel/Station
Three

Summary

[This summary does not form part of the decision.]

The Authority has not upheld a complaint that an item on Newshub Live at 6pm concerning US immigration breached the good taste and decency and balance standards. The complaint was that showing the bodies of a toddler and her father who drowned while trying to enter the US was gratuitous, and that the item’s coverage of migrant detention camps and interviews with protestors outside were unbalanced as no comment was included from US authorities. The Authority found that including the images of dead bodies was justified in the public interest, and the warning preceding them was sufficient to enable viewers to exercise choice and control over their viewing, so there was no breach of good taste and decency. Under the balance standard, the Authority found the item was clearly signalled as being focused on the plight and struggles of child migrants primarily from Central America and the obstacles and risks they face, rather than immigration policy itself, therefore comments from US authorities would not be expected. Additionally, the issue is the subject of ongoing media scrutiny around the world, so viewers could reasonably be expected to be aware of significant viewpoints on the issue, including from US authorities, and would not be left significantly misinformed as a result of this item.

Not Upheld: Good Taste and Decency, Balance


The broadcast

[1]  An item on Newshub Live at 6pm (sourced from ITV UK) which covered the plight of migrants coming to the USA was prompted by a recent incident where a father and his young daughter drowned while trying to cross into the US. The item included images of their bodies and was preceded by the following statements from the newsreaders:

Samantha Hayes:       Now we must warn you our next story contains an image many will find distressing. It’s a photograph of the bodies of a toddler and her father, who drowned as they tried to cross the border to America.

Mike McRoberts:         They were migrants desperate for a better life, found locked in a dying embrace. ITV’s Robert Moore reports.

[2]  The item went on to cover the controversy around the conditions of detention camps containing recently arrived migrants. It included footage of protestors and clips from interviews with two migrant rights activists, who said:

I call it a concentration camp because I think we need to warn people about what history has taught us. This is a moral stain. And what we’re doing here is we’re trying to make this moral stain visible to the world.

We understand they’re not allowed to hug; they can’t touch each other in there. Even if they have a sibling in there, they can’t hug their siblings either.

[3]  The item concluded with the following statement from the ITV reporter:

According to the activists monitoring this camp, there are 2,500 migrant children held here – almost all from Central America – and their fate is now the source of mounting political outrage.

[4]  In considering this complaint the Authority has viewed the broadcast complained about and has read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

The complaint

[5]  Laurence Pask complained that the item breached the good taste and decency and balance standards of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice for the following reasons:

Good taste and decency

  • The pictures of the dead bodies were gratuitous and out of context for the news story.
  • The images were close up; the ‘figures almost filled the frame of the picture’.
  • The bodies were shown in order to make ‘a prejudicial point’ against US immigration policy.
  • Other news stories do not show dead bodies (for example, drownings at Piha beach or car accident deaths).
  • Whether there was a warning preceding the images was not the point; the images were ‘gratuitous and prejudicial versus probative’.

Balance

  • The story showed ‘a US immigration centre in Florida and some US citizens protesting outside’ showing support for those inside.
  • The views of the protestors were aired with no response or comment from US authorities.
  • ‘[T]he whole story was extremely prejudicial against the US government and its immigration policies’.
  • It would ‘give a very one-sided view to someone not aware of any of the facts.’

The broadcaster’s response

[6]  MediaWorks TV Ltd did not uphold the complaint for the following reasons:

Good taste and decency

  • While the photo was challenging, a clear warning was provided prior to its broadcast.
  • The inclusion of the photo was in the public interest.

Balance

  • ‘The issue of migrant camps at the US border is a controversial one, but it has been discussed widely in the global and local news media’.
  • ‘[I]t is likely that viewers would have been aware of the significant perspectives that exist in relation to the issue.’

The standards

[7]  The good taste and decency standard (Standard 1) states that current norms of good taste and decency should be maintained, consistent with the context of the programme. The Authority will consider the standard in relation to any broadcast that portrays or discusses material in a way that is likely to cause widespread undue offence or distress.1

[8]  The balance standard (Standard 8) states that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed in news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters should make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest.

Our findings

[9]  When we consider a complaint that broadcasting standards have been breached, our task is to weigh the value of the programme, in terms of the right to freedom of expression and the public interest in the programme, against the level of actual or potential harm that might be caused by the broadcast. In this case the harm alleged is to audiences generally, firstly by causing distress through the broadcast of gratuitous images, and secondly by leaving audiences misinformed by omitting a balancing viewpoint on a controversial issue.

[10]  Looking first at the value and public interest in the item, we note the Authority has previously acknowledged that informing viewers of the actions and effects of political regimes both locally and internationally helps create an active public discourse, which is an important part of a free and democratic society.2 News media play a vital role in bringing this information to the public. In addition to the political interest in this story, there was also an element of human interest, considering the struggles faced by migrants. The human interest aspect of a news story can be emphasised by impactful or powerful images, which demonstrate the nature and gravity of events.3

[11]  We have weighed this value against the harm alleged to have been caused by the broadcast. For the reasons we outline below, we have not found actual or potential harm in relation to the nominated broadcasting standards at a level which would warrant regulatory intervention or limiting the right to freedom of expression in this case. 

Good taste and decency

[12]  The purpose of this standard is to protect audience members from material likely to cause widespread undue offence or distress or undermine widely shared community standards, taking into account the context in which the material was broadcast.4 We recognise that the complainant considered the images of the bodies to be gratuitous and understand his concern that the images were being used to provoke and prejudice audiences against the US administration and supported what he considered to be a one-sided story. The question for us is whether the use of the images was justified in the context, or whether they were likely to offend or distress the audience regardless of the context. Accordingly, the context of the broadcast is crucial to our assessment under this standard.5

[13]  We found the following contextual factors to be relevant in our assessment:

  • Newshub is an unclassified news programme (it does not carry a rating)
  • Newshub is targeted at an adult audience, although it screens at 6pm during children’s normally accepted viewing times
  • the nature of news programmes, which frequently contain strong or adult material such as crime or violence
  • the Authority recognises that news programmes are unlikely to be viewed by children unsupervised6
  • the item was preceded by a clear warning and a description of what the image would contain (see paragraph [1])
  • there were about 15 seconds between the initial warning (‘Now we must warn you our next story contains an image many will find distressing.’) and the actual image being shown, giving viewers time to choose not to watch if they wished
  • the images were not sensationalised, and the individuals’ faces were not shown
  • the images did not depict any obvious wounds or trauma
  • the nature of the story and its subject matter, which is an ongoing international issue that has generated significant controversy and continues to be covered widely in news media.

[14]  Having regard to these factors, and the value of the item as a whole, we found no breach of the good taste and decency standard. As we have said, while the image depicted a human tragedy, we consider there was public interest in this item, and in reporting on newsworthy events in the US. Audiences should not be shielded from violent or tragic events, which unfortunately do take place, and the standards recognise that, in news programmes, disturbing or alarming material is often shown to reflect the world we live in.7 We have previously found that the use of strong images in news reporting can be impactful rather than gratuitous, and that they can enable viewers to understand the gravity of a situation in a way that verbal descriptions do not.8 In this case we find the use of the images of the toddler and her father was justified in the public interest and served as a powerful illustration of the plight of those attempting to cross the US border, which was the focus of the item.

[15]  Additionally, while the images were confronting and may have been upsetting for some viewers, the clear warning and description given prior to the item allowed viewers an opportunity to make a different viewing choice or exercise discretion with regard to children’s viewing. The Authority’s established approach to complaints concerning the good taste and decency standard is that, where broadcasters are able to successfully manage their audience’s expectations by providing information sufficient for them to make informed choices about content – such as audience advisories – breaches of the standard will be less likely.9 We are satisfied the broadcaster took reasonable steps to inform viewers about the nature of the content in this case.

[16]  For the above reasons we do not consider the item threatened community standards of taste and decency in the context, and we do not uphold the complaint under the good taste and decency standard.

Balance

[17]  The balance standard only applies to situations where a ‘controversial issue of public importance’ is ‘discussed’ in ‘news, current affairs or factual programmes’.10

[18]  An issue of public importance is something that would have a significant potential impact on, or be of concern to, members of the New Zealand public.11 A controversial issue will be one which has topical currency and excites conflicting opinion or about which there has been ongoing public debate.12

[19]  We consider immigration into the USA and the risks migrants face, particularly children, is a controversial issue of significant concern to the New Zealand public, given that New Zealand is part of a global community and immigration issues are global issues.13 We also accept this issue was discussed in the news item as contemplated by the standard.

[20]  However, the assessment of what was required under this standard must take into account the way in which the programme was presented; for example, we ask ourselves, did it purport to be a balanced examination of an issue or was it clearly signalled as approaching the topic from a particular perspective.14 In this case, we consider the item was clearly signalled as being focused on the plight and struggles of child migrants, primarily from Central America, the human tragedy facing the family profiled, and the obstacles and risks they face. It did not purport to be a detailed examination of the legality or ethics of US immigration policy. We do not consider that viewers would have expected to be presented with the full range of views on US immigration, or a response from US authorities.

[21]  Additionally, we consider the nature of the issue being discussed. The balance standard recognises that some issues will be covered widely and so it does not require that every significant view on a complex, ongoing issue such as this be included within each and every item. The standard allows for balance to be achieved over time ‘within the period of current interest’.15 Immigration into the US is the subject of ongoing media attention and public debate and it can reasonably be expected that viewers are broadly aware of the main viewpoints on this issue, including from US immigration authorities.

[22]  In these circumstances, we do not consider viewers would have been left uninformed or unable to form their own views about the topic discussed, in the absence of comment from US authorities.

[23]  Therefore the harm alleged in the complaint in this respect did not outweigh the right to freedom of expression, and we do not uphold the complaint under the balance standard.

For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.


Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

 

 

Judge Bill Hastings

Chair

18 November 2019

 

 

Appendix

The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:

1.               Laurence Pask’s formal complaint to MediaWorks – 27 June 2019

2.               MediaWorks’ decision – 24 July 2019

3.               Mr Pask’s referral to the Authority – 24 July 2019

4.               MediaWorks’ confirmation of no further comments – 9 August 2019

 


1 Commentary: Good Taste and Decency, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 12
2 Wakelin and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2018-060 at [9]
3 Grant and Phillips and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2019-013 at [36]
4 Commentary: Good Taste and Decency, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 12
5 Guideline 1a
6 Lowry and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2018-051 at [9]
7 Lewis and MediaWorks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2017-069 at [14]
8 NT and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2019-028 at [38] and [42]
9 Grant and Phillips and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2019-013 at [46]
10 Guideline 8a
11 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
12 As above
13 See 'Migration', United Nations <www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/migration/index.html>
14 Guideline 8c
15 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18