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BSA Finds The University Of Otago Treated Unfairly In Broadcasts About Sexual Assault Allegations

The Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) has found that items on TVNZ’s Breakfast and 1 News were unfair to the University of Otago, in breach of the fairness broadcasting standard. The Breakfast programme was also found to be in breach of the balance broadcasting standard.

The findings relate to a complaint by the University regarding items on Sunday, 1 News and Breakfast about sexual assault allegations by former and current students of the University.

The complaint about Sunday was not upheld, as overall the Sunday programme was balanced. The programme was clearly signaled as coming from the perspective of the women interviewed and included comment from the University. No material inaccuracies were identified, and the University was given a reasonable opportunity to respond.

The complaint raised important issues about fairness, accuracy and balance in journalism. The Sunday broadcast focused on the sensitive subject of sexual assault complaints, and the question of how universities, and in this case how Otago University, should respond. These are challenging issues of public importance with high public value. In its decision, the Authority acknowledged the role of the media to challenge, and noted that asking, “how should sexual complaints be handled?” is important.

However, the subsequent Breakfast and 1 News items chose to focus on the University’s decision not to be interviewed, resulting in unfairness to the University. The Authority commented that the “broadcasts on Breakfast and 1 News changed the focus of the story. In our view the University was not treated fairly and, in the case of Breakfast, balance was also lacking. These two programmes fell short of the standards we expect of broadcasters in New Zealand.”

Breakfast advanced the allegations that the University mishandled allegations of sexual assault to avoid reputational damage. This was asserted by one of the women interviewed in the Sunday programme and was clearly opinion. However, on Breakfast this opinion was presented as fact. The Authority found that the University was not adequately informed or given a fair and reasonable opportunity to comment.

While Sunday did not portray the University adversely, for not appearing on camera, when this became the focus of the Breakfast item the result was that the University’s position was not fairly represented.

‘The inclusion of statements from the University that were read on air, for example ”Otago University says it has zero tolerance for sexual misconduct by students or staff”, were not sufficient to balance the specific allegations made on Breakfast.’

The Authority did not make any orders, and said that the publication of its decision would be sufficient to censure the broadcasters’ conduct.

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