When Fiction is reported as fact - good journalism gone bad

Recently TVNZ news reported that new allegations of animal cruelty had come to light concerning the star of the locally produced series The Lion Man.

The story surfaced on the top rated news programme One Network News on the 31st of May shortly after the tragic death of Zion Wildlife Gardens head handler Dalu Mcnube. Mr Busch had also questioned the safety at the park after the tragedy had occurred. One News claimed to have documents, as well as staff eyewitness accounts which were described in detail as follows:

"ONE News has spoken to staff who claim Busch cruelly killed unwanted cubs.

One worker claims he saw Busch put a cub down using a rock the size of a softball.

"He lay the cub on the ground...he was in a standing position and he threw the rock down on the ground onto the cub. It took three or four times before he was satisfied it was dead, cause he actually... semi missed & he clipped it cause I remember seeing the thing bounce with the impact of the rock," alleges one anonymous worker"

- Sourced from TVNZ

TVNZ at the end of the news item also stated that staff had spoken to One News said that they didn't speak up at the time, but were 'too scared to do so'.

Well respected media expert and top rated journalist Brian Edwards on his blog Brian Edwards Media described this news item as "one of the most disgraceful and irresponsible pieces of journalism I have seen in some years." Yes perhaps unnamed staff had gone to One News with these allegations and, as Brian said "We can't judge those people's credibility because we don't know who they are" - which we don't know who they are. Are they lying? We don't know that either, but it wasn't about who said what or whom said it. Brian's point was the about the ethics of taking unfounded allegations and going on air with it anyway.

Sensational news equals instantly high ratings. Fine if it's founded in concrete fact and they can present the evidence to hand. Where were the documents and the people that were alleging these very serious allegations? Nowhere to be found yet they made it headline news anyway. On this I have to agree with Brian Edwards. The lines between fact and fiction in the case of Craig Busch vs Zion Wildlife Gardens have become blurred and light of the recent tragedy One New chose to drive the knife in with a story that should never have gone to air. Do they have the documents? I don't know - TVNZ may have them or they may not have them. Only they know if they have or not. My comment to Mr Edward's editorial was as follows:

On this I have to agree. TVNZ are claiming they have ‘documents’ but where is the concrete proof? Similar allegations were made back in 2007 about Mr Busch’s treatment of cubs and the adult animals in his care but again these were just allegations. TVNZ also reported that 30 lions & tigers were declawed. On this I went to source namely MAF and obtained the actual report from February 2009. This is concrete fact but to attack Mr Busch concerning abuse without any proof - on this I say shame on TVNZ, I mentioned these allegations in an editorial I wrote hoever I also did not form and opinion due to the fact that these new allegations were just that - allegations. The fact is there are several separate issues involved. The dispute between Mr Busch & Zion over ownership of the park. The Unfair Dismissal Case currently adjourned before the ERA, The now current investigations into the death of a Park Employee from different government organisations and the dispute over copyrights etc concerning the Lion Man Franchise. The lines between have become seriously blurred. TVNZ should not allow that to happen. Thanks Brian for your logical insight.
His reply to me was as follows:

Yes, as I said in the original post, the issue is not whether the allegations have substance, but whether a responsible news outlet should publish anonymous, untested and highly defamatory claims.

My answer to that is No they shouldn't. One thing to have it all there in hand and proven beyond a doubt another to have allegations and nothing to back it up then go to air anyway. On this One News failed to be objective in their judgement.

TVNZ aren't the only ones that have made things out to be fact when they are not. Take the case of a story published in the New Zealand Herald concerning Dr Brendan Moyle apparently advocating Tiger Farming as a means to save the species, when in fact it was about something completely different. Dr Moyle had written a paper titled The Black Market Trade in China which concerned the illegal trade in China of tigers, body parts and the economy generated by that trade. I have blogged about this story previously. Dr Moyle had kindly emailed me his reply concerning my questions in regard to his views on the story the Herald published. His email response was interesting to say the least:

Basically the Herald reporter did an interview and opted to make it very sensational. I'm not one a one-man mission to save the tiger, lots of people helped. Even the headline doesn't match the content of the piece. He omitted the previous 50 minutes I spent talking about the research and jumped straight to some of speculation on the future of tigers. It's a shame because of the research is relevant to the conservation of tigers. For instance, there is a very strong separation of the black markets by geography, sub-species and product type. E.g. there's no pipeline of bone being smuggled from India into the eastern provinces of China. There it's skins and mostly stopping in Tibet. I am afraid that the future for tigers does not look bright. The smugglers and poachers are winning, and have plenty of strategies already established to 'beat' law enforcement. If we look at Indonesia, we know that poaching of Sumatran tigers has been on-going right through the 90s. In 20 years, Indonesia has busted exactly one conspiracy. That was in 2003. And that conspiracy had operated for 10 years without getting detected. India is arresting forest ranger and police all the time for poaching. And India is easy compared to Indo-China. When I started researching tigers (from crocodiles!) we thought that India alone had 4000 tigers. 12 months later, and we thought the whole of Asia had 4000 tigers. That's about 2000 tigers gone. The problem is that many conservationists still believe that the current policy mix will eventually work to save tigers. Lose 2000 tigers off your estimate overnight, but hey, don't worry. Doing more of the same will fix problem sometime soon. From a criminology- and economics perspective- the root problem is that we have policy mix that in practical terms- leads to tigers having a bounty of $US50k on their heads. The only catch is you have to be a criminal to collect that bounty. So, for over 20 years we've been hoping that Asian criminals will turn down the chance to earn $US50k if successful. All they've understood is that conservationists have been offering to make them rich. I'm not sure that most conservationists realise that we're losing the struggle with smugglers badly. There seems to be a general air of optimism that each year will be different, and there will be a turn around in tiger numbers. This hasn't happened in decades. So, unless people are happy with these outcomes, then we're going to assess all our options properly. And come up with some very clever ideas fast.

Either way both reputable media organisations have both an ethical and moral obligation to report the facts as they stand in an unbiased manner - in these two stories both failed that obligation. The need for sensationalism over-rode the need for good old fashioned ethical journalism. Shame on you both.


  1. Great post Liz! Mind you even if tvnz did have the proof certain ahem...people would still say they were lying. Good thing you did have the proof with your 2009 maf report on declawing eh?

  2. Which is why we get the proof to begin with.

  3. I, in my innocence, thought that it was standard journalistic practice to go and research a story before putting something in print or on the air. Hey, that's what the fictional journos do. The media, so I heard recently, are our representatives. They're there to analyse and present the truth to us. So they say.

    I don't think this way anymore. Journalistic research skills seem to have gone. The Pat Booths of the journo world don't rule the media anymore -- we have the lacklustre descendants. What the heck are they teaching in journalism classes, anyway?

  4. We expect that kind of reporting from the tabloids, but professional, responsible news outlets are held up to a higher standard. We expect what they say to be well researched, verified, and true. When we can't believe them, then they need to stop calling it news.