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Wairarapa Times-Age ran a story in April this year saying a shortage of doctors had forced the region’s biggest medical provider, Masterton Medical, to close its doors to new patients.

The story ran online and in print with the headline Who are you going to call? The headline was part of a digitally manipulated picture depicting an out-of-date medical centre sign plus an image that read: No More New Patients.

Masterton Medical complained the photoshopped picture was misleading and damaged its reputation. It agreed the story was factually correct, but the effect of the graphic was to suggest that Masterton Medical had erected a sign outside their premises saying “No More New Patients”. This had never been the case.

In conjunction with the paper, the medical centre had agreed on a mutually acceptable clarification and apology, but that had not been published because the medical centre had not withdrawn its complaint to the Media Council.

Wairarapa Times-Age said the complaint was “disproportionate and unreasonable” but accepted “an image used to illustrate the story was incorrectly labelled”. However, it did not accept that the message provided by the image was incorrect or misleading as it accurately reflected information provided by the medical centre in the body of the story. It said it was an unfortunate oversight not to have included a credit clearly indicating the image had been photoshopped.

In addition, the decision not to run a clarification in the next day’s paper was influenced by Masterton Medical stating it would only provide comment in future if it had copy approval; its demand the clarification run on the front page, which was not possible as the next issue was full of ANZAC Day coverage; and uncertainty about whether there might be a further complaint about the story itself.

The Media Council accepts that mislabelling the digitally altered image was a genuine error. However, it said any technical manipulation that could mislead readers should be clearly noted and explained. The misrepresentation of the paper’s front page illustration is not something that can be overlooked or downplayed.

Wairarapa Times-Age had an opportunity to correct the illustration in print as it had done online but chose not to while a complaint was before the Council. The Council’s view is that both the newspaper’s readers and the online audience should have been informed of the error at roughly the same time. The paper chose not to do this, and that is unfortunate.

It is also unfortunate that relations appear to have broken down between the parties, leading to the Medical Centre demanding to see copy before publication for future stories. News organisations are naturally reluctant to have copy reviewed by interview subjects. Wairarapa Times-Age is right to refuse this request. The Council encourages both parties to learn from the experience, wipe the slate clean and start again.  The complaint is upheld under Principles (11] and [12].

The full Media Council ruling can be found on its website.


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