When the facts get in the way of a good story

From Mediawatch, 9:12 am on 4 June 2017

Mediawatch looks at two cases of local papers taking a very different approach to controversial stories that weren't backed up by facts.

Down the years, the theories of amateur historian Noel Hilliam – including that European settlers arrived in this country long before Māori – have been thoroughly debunked by actual experts.

But that didn't stop Hilliam's local paper the Northern Advocate putting his story on the front page on 13 May, along with sketches of what these supposed settlers from Wales might have looked like 3,000 years ago.

According to the Northern Advocate's yarn, Noel Hilliam said those striking sketches on its front page were made by a forensic pathologist from overseas who'd examined some bones he gave him.

That Northern Advocate story also went up on the website of its stablemate The New Zealand Herald – New Zealand's second-most widely viewed news website.

A lot of people would have seen it and shared it on social media before the story was taken down without explanation.

In an editorial about the controversy, The Timaru Herald newspaper said it wasn't just the Northern Advocate that might make such a mistake in these digital days.

"Social media constantly puts all sorts of unfiltered claims and opinions into the public arena."

"The mainstream media - trying to get information out as quickly as possible and often with denuded reporting staff - can be as susceptible as anyone else to letting improperly filtered information slip through the cracks."

"Any media organisation is potentially vulnerable, and we have to redouble our efforts, in an age of information overload, to make sure our filters are working efficiently."

The paper went on to say "journalists of a certain age" have been taught about the news media's role as information 'gatekeepers' yet "At the end of the day, the best filter we each have against the balderdash is our own common sense. "

A depressing message, really, to send to those who trust their daily paper.

However this past week, another Fairfax paper a bit further north made a better effort with a controversial local issue on its patch.

On 27 May, the Nelson Mail published a piece by reporter Hannah Bartlett headlined The perils of social media as a democratic gatekeeper.

It included the following: "A snippet of misinformation circulating on Facebook this week ought to serve as a timely reminder that while social media may bring controversy, it rarely brings truth or accuracy."

This snippet was an anonymous post on a Facebook page called Nelson Snippets, which claimed that behind closed doors, the Nelson City Council had decided to give a quarter of a million dollars of ratepayers' money to the Brook Waimarama Sanctuary.

Brook Waimarama Sanctuary

Photo: Alison Ballance / RNZ

This, said Nelson Snippets, would pay for 26 tonnes of poison to be dropped inside the sanctuary, which would kill animals and poison water.

Also, three councillors, they said, were actually prevented from casting a vote on that.

Many of the almost 20,000 people who follow Nelson Snippets page were worried by this, judging by their comments on Facebook.

Some even threatened to disrupt any dump of the poison and to punish the councillors who voted for it at the polls.

After Hannah Bartlett's article appeared online Nelson Snippets took down their misleading post about the wildlife sanctuary poison plan and posted an article tagged as "the other side of the story" which included the comment that it "seems more likely".

But if you assume that most of the 20,000 followers of Nelson Snippets on Facebook are residents of the region as many as one in five Nelsonians could have seen those claims.