A complaint about the New Zealand's Herald's reporting of racial abuse on a West Auckland street has been upheld by the Media Council.
The story was published on May 18 under the headline "Covid19 coronavirus: Filipino family chased by dog and then taunted by its owner to 'go back to China'."
The article was found to be unfair. The Herald was also found to have breached Media Council principles relating to headlines and corrections.
The story reported an incident in Swanson, where a family going for a walk were frightened by a dog which had escaped from its property. The father of the family took his child out of his pram so he could use the pram to fend off the dog if required.
A row developed with the dog's owner and another man who came out onto the street.
A member of the Filipino family filmed part of the fracas on her cell phone and a brief segment of this, which was later run by the Herald, carried a voice saying go back to China and "take your Covid-19 with you".
The dog's owner complained that the story, as first published online, was inaccurate. He had not racially taunted the family. The comments, which he strongly disagreed with, were spoken by a friend.
He said the article was also one-sided as he had not been approached for comment before publication. The story was amended after he called the Herald but the headline was not corrected until two days later after he made a second complaint.
Although he and others in the fracas were not named by the Herald, he and his friend had "become a piece of rubbish in our neighbour's eyes". There had also been criticism on Facebook which had caused him to be worried for his own safety as well as that of his dog and property.
The Media Council found the Herald's handling of this story was unfair. The Herald news director's excuse, that they were not able to contact the dog owner before the story was published as they did not have his contact details, was unconvincing.
No effort was made to locate him although they knew the locality where he lived and a reporter could have been sent out doorknocking to get his side of the story.
This may have taken more time but the timing of publication was not critical and was entirely at the Herald's discretion – the story had already been held over for a day to enable the Herald to confirm complaints had been laid with the police and Animal Control and to get comment from the Race Relations Commissioner.
As it was the Herald ran an incomplete story in which a key party had not been approached for his version of events. This left the Herald dependent on the dog's owner making contact before a more balance story could be published.
The Herald did have video footage to confirm a key element of the story - that somebody had yelled "go back to China". But the footage was so brief and indistinct that it was hard to know who said it to whom or to take anything more from it without detailed explanation. This made it all the more important for the Herald to try and find the other party involved in the fracas.
The original one-sided story was published at 5.10pm and it was more than four hours later before the online story was amended with comment from the dog's owner after his approach.
While the story was corrected the headline was not fixed until two days later when the dog's owner made a further complaint.
This was careless. Headlines have a big impact on how stories are perceived by readers. By the time it was fixed the story was well removed from the Herald's homepage so the public would have only seen the corrected headline if they went looking for the story.
"The effect of this is that the vast majority of those who read the story are still under the misapprehension that the dog's owner had hurled racial abuse. There is no indication that the Herald has done anything to inform those readers that its headline was wrong."
Other complaints - on the grounds of privacy, comment and fact - were not upheld.
The Herald did not publish the complainant's name or his friend's name and their faces were pixelated in the brief video. It may be that other people had identified them or that they had felt the vilification of social media but that was not a matter that the Herald could be blamed for.
• The full Media Council ruling can be read here