The Press Council considered a complaint by the Lost Dogs’ Home about an article in The Age on 28 November 2015 headed “It’s concrete pens and barking dogs” in print and an online version which included a video and a different heading.
The article said a dog at the Home, “Dino” was treated for problems with impulse control and kept in a cage for five months with little exercise until “he was filmed for [a] video. Then he was killed”. The article gave descriptions of the stays, medications and fates of six other dogs. The article quoted sources claiming dogs were routinely given high doses of drugs for “anxiety, depression and other problems” despite “questionable testing”, and that there were drastic cuts to the time the dogs spent outside of cages. The voiceover in the video said “this is what life is like for hundreds of dogs, they are fed sedatives and antidepressants”, and quoted a source saying dogs were “heavily drugged” and “drugged for normal dog behaviour”.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require publications to take reasonable steps to: ensure that factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1) and reasonably fair and balanced (General Principle 3); publish a correction or take other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading (General Principle 2) and give a fair opportunity for subsequent publication of a reply if necessary (General Principle 4); avoid publishing material gathered by deceptive or unfair means, unless in the public interest (General Principle 7) and ensure conflicts of interests are avoided or disclosed and do not influence material (General Principle 8).
The complainant said the article failed to note Dino’s long stay was partly due to untreatable aggression and to pancreatitis, which had led to his hospitalisation and then euthanasia after an expert assessment. The complainant informed the publication about these matters in a telephone discussion on the day before publication and Dino’s pancreatitis was referred to in his adoption profile on its website. The complainant also said the article failed to note Dino was walked twice daily and had 45 minutes in a dog-run every day.
The complainant said the reporting about the six other dogs was also inaccurate and unfair because the information - taken from notes on pens and screen grabs from the Home’s computers - was incomplete and these were not official records. The complainant said if the publication had requested information on these dogs, the Home would have provided official medical histories, which included details of the dogs’ conditions, the medical treatment provided and attempts to find them homes.
The complainant said the statements in the video that “hundreds of dogs” were “fed sedatives and antidepressants” and “drugged for normal dog behaviour” were wrong. It said no dogs were sedated and only eight of 170 dogs were on medication, following expert assessment related to treating anxiety and antisocial behaviour.
The Home said the audio of its staff member used in the video was recorded without permission and, when combined with other incorrect claims, was unfair to her and not justified in the public interest. It said insufficient time had been given for it to respond to the publication’s requests for information and the reporter had declined an invitation to visit the Home. The complainant also said the newspaper initially invited it to submit an opinion piece when it raised concerns, but the newspaper was only prepared to publish its response as a shorter letter to the Editor and this did not adequately present its position, and was published a week after the article.
The publication said the complainant never mentioned Dino’s pancreatitis, his hospitalisation or that this had inhibited his adoption. It said the promotional video featuring Dino did not mention these matters and it would not explain keeping the dog for so long or euthanising him. It said Dino’s adoption profile was difficult to find; mentioned only “a bout of pancreatitis” which was common and suggested a mild condition; and the complainant had only drawn its attention to the profile after publication of the article. Although the complainant said during the telephone discussion on the day before publication that Dino had tried to get at a rabbit in a hutch, the publication did not consider this unusual enough behaviour to include in the article as it was ‘normal dog behaviour’. It said Dino had first been given anti-anxiety medication four months after coming to the Home.
The publication said the reporting about the six other dogs was taken from the Home’s computers or whiteboards and constituted the home’s own records; it did not imply these were full histories of each dog; and this information illustrated that a range of dogs were given anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication. It said the article included a comment by the Home about the use of medication.
The publication also said the reference to concern about the dog “Misty” possibly being sedated was a direct quote and therefore fair and accurate.
The publication said the video did not actually say that hundreds of dogs were fed sedatives and anti-depressants and if this was implied, it was accurate as a figure “over time”. It said the video was short and all of the claims and responses were explained in more detail in the print article. The publication said the information in the article concerning animal welfare at the Home was derived from sources including a retired veterinarian, former board members of the Home and an animal behaviouralist.
The publication said the complainant was given sufficient opportunity to respond to all claims; was allowed an additional day upon request; had taken part in a telephone discussion; and its responses were taken into account in the article.
The publication said the audio recording about ending group dog walks was in the public interest and the substance of it had been put to the complainant for comment. The publication said it had disclosed the interest of the source who had initiated the previous program; the individual had ceased working there in 2013; and her concerns were echoed by a current staff member and two board members. The publication said the complainant agreed to publication of its response as a letter to the Editor, which was longer than usual, and the delay in publishing it was reasonable.
The Council acknowledges the conflicting accounts of whether the publication was informed about Dino’s pancreatitis. Weighing the material on both sides, the Council considers it more likely than not that this was communicated, particularly as it goes some way to explain the length of Dino’s stay. The short promotional video for the Home did not refer to Dino’s pancreatitis, but the Council considers this was not surprising. Given the inference in the article that Dino was euthanised for no valid reason, the Council considers it inaccurate and unfair not to include specific reference to Dino’s aggression and pancreatitis, as this would have provided a more fair and balanced background to Dino’s length of stay and the decision to euthanise him.
As to the six other dogs, the Council considers the article covered their general treatment and not just the administration of drugs. It would have been reasonable for the publication to have sought their medical histories before the article was published and included material from these – which indicated the problems and assessments leading to the various outcomes – to provide a fair and balanced report. The Council concludes that in not doing so, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid a misleading and unfair report of the dogs’ treatment.
The Council considers the voice-over in the video commencing with “this is what life is like for hundreds of dogs” inaccurately and unfairly implied that hundreds of dogs were fed sedatives and antidepressants at the time of publication. The Council considers it would have been reasonable for the publication to seek a specific response to these claims from the Home for inclusion in the article.
Consequently, the Council concludes that the article breached General Principles 1 and 3, and the complaint is upheld in these respects.
Given that the publication had been working on the story for more than a month, the events described in the article had taken place over many months and required attention to the detailed histories of the dogs, the Council doubts whether allowing the Home only two days to respond – one of which was the day of its Annual General Meeting – afforded the Home a reasonable time to respond, but reaches no conclusion in this respect.
The Council considers it may have been unfair to make and use the recording without consent, but there was a sufficient public interest to justify doing so. As to the potential conflict of interest of one of the sources, the Council considers the publication took sufficient steps to draw readers' attention to this issue. Accordingly, the Council does not uphold these aspects of the complaint.
Finally, the Council considers the published letter to the Editor included the major elements to which the complainant sought to respond and was published within a reasonable time, and accordingly this aspect of the complaint is not upheld.
Relevant Council Standards
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
“Publications must take reasonable steps to:
1. Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
2. Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
3. Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts.
4. Ensure that where material refers adversely to a person, a fair opportunity is given for subsequent publication of a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3.
7. Avoid publishing material which has been gathered by deceptive or unfair means, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
8. Ensure that conflicts of interests are avoided or adequately disclosed, and that they do not influence published material.