The New Zealand Media Council has affirmed complaints against a Stuff article that alleged unfair reporting practices.
The contentious story, School counsellor accused of ‘bullying’ and transphobia, was based on a Facebook post from Marli de Klerk, a counsellor at Bethlehem College in Tauranga, and subsequent reactions to it.
Ms de Klerk was reportedly labelled “transphobic” for her “damaging” and “prejudiced” views about the Ministry of Education curriculum in the article.
In her Facebook post, she suggested that the curriculum was “intentionally teaching falsehoods to youngsters” about gender issues. The controversial post has since been removed.
The Stuff piece quoted several individuals who disagreed with Ms de Klerk’s stance, among them a “health professional” and a psychotherapist. The article also linked a local arson event to anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment in Tauranga.
The Media Council received four separate complaints about the story.
All four highlighted the usage of the term ‘bullying’ in the headline, and expressed dissatisfaction with Stuff’s tardy correction and the ineffective removal of the term.
While Stuff did apologise for using the term, the apology was deemed insufficient as it was placed at the end of the article. One complainer noted that, despite the retraction of the article, Ms de Klerk had been erroneously labelled as a bully and transphobic, causing her undue harm.
The complainers further criticised the article’s reference to a ‘health practitioner’ who turned out to be an osteopath from Northland commenting on Ms de Klerk’s original post.
They argued that labelling her a ‘health practitioner’ insinuated expertise in gender matters, leading to an imbalance in the article.
The article was seen by all complainers as part of an ongoing campaign by Stuff against the Christian-based college regarding gender issues, with one suggesting the reporter be barred from covering these topics.
One complainer asserted that Ms de Klerk’s reasonable expectations of privacy were violated when responses to her personal post were transformed into a published article.
In defence, Stuff denied any bias in the article or by the journalist. They admitted that the headline should not have contained the term “bullying”, which they claim was promptly corrected.
The headline was changed, the location of the health professional was updated, information about a gender issues book endorsed by Bethlehem College was included, and an apology was added at the article’s end.
Stuff maintained that alternative views were not included as the article was not part of a broader debate. They defended quoting the osteopath who had commented extensively on the Facebook post, stating her occupation was irrelevant to the story. The inclusion of the arson incident was justified as fair comment and relevant to the issues raised.
The Council upheld the complaints under Principle (1) for lack of fairness, noting it was a major error to accuse Ms de Klerk of bullying in the headline. Despite Stuff’s correction, an internet search continues to display the original headline. Other principles did not warrant the remaining complaints.
The complete Media Council ruling can be accessed on its official website.