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Small words, poor context, email battle

UPDATE 1/11/17.  I had a call today correcting me on my accusation against the original reporter and it’s fair enough.  The original reporter had made corrections to the original story.  The ‘quote’ I was later upset somehow survived that process but I most likely could have had that removed if I had checked the corrections at that time. 

I’ve written this mainly to apologise to friends and colleagues in Aspen for embarrassment or confusion caused by reporters (x2) misrepresenting the report I wrote for Council following our sister-city visit in April 2016.  I’ve also written it as a reminder to myself and anyone else, to always correct poor reporting and ensure the on-line trail is corrected, even when it’s minor, otherwise the error keeps on keeping on.  

In May 2016, a local reporter covered my report and incorrectly quoted me as calling Aspen an “empty town”.  Nowhere did I call it that. I talked to the reporter, complained, she apologised, I left it at that. It wasn’t a big deal, a small story in a small local newspaper made a wee bit more sensational than it really was.  No harm really done.  However, in September 2017, a truly dreadful story comparing Aspen unfavourably and un-factually with Queenstown appeared in several national papers and prominently online, quoting not my report, but the inflammatory and untrue part of the original story, which still existed somewhere in weird journo cyber-space reference vaults. And of course it was attributed to me without the context of reference to the actual report. Blushingly, this was just weeks before the Aspen people arrive in Queenstown for their return visit.

So I complained. The gist of my complaint was that for the second time, Fairfax media have misquoted my report and divorced my statements from the report’s context and I am embarrassed for the offence this causes me, the delegation and our Aspen hosts and friends.

Happily, after many emails the editor(s) have fixed both stories (except for a caption under an image in the second story grrr!  I’m working on it) and linked them to the actual report so people can read and judge for themselves the findings of our delegation.

The entire email trail is below for the detail geeks, starting with an email to a staffer (I’ve since removed all names after a phone call representing one of the people involved), then gets into a discussion with a Fairfax travel editor as step one in a press council complaint, which thankfully never happened:

Alexa Forbes Tue 10/10/2017 11:37 a.m.;

Hi XXXX, I am writing to object to the out-of-context use/reference to a report I collated in a story published on-line on October 6 and in printed publications on other dates. Here is a link to the story.

My complaint is that my report which collated views of Aspen people who talked frankly and openly to a Queenstown delegation has been used to erroneously criticise a town which is our sister city.  The purpose of the report was to help Queenstown think about its own growth issues and its galling to see such odious reference to it here – utterly out of context and used to make useless and likely untrue comparisons between the resort towns.  I did not find Aspen as your reporter has described and there is no link to the report which means there is no ability for people to make their own assessment of how I viewed Aspen.  Your reporter has made no attempt to contact me and my comments on your website (made on the 6th or 7th) have not made it through your moderation system.  So my name has been misused, my information misused, my delegation and its hosts embarrassed and I have no ability or opportunity to respond except through this after-the-fact complaint process.

I am upset about this.  The report your reporter refers to was accepted by the Queenstown Lakes District Council as part of our efforts to solve issues of growth by talking to others who face or have faced similar issues.  It is a public report because we try to be a transparent council.  Your reporters misuse of this has embarrassed me and threatens the ability for people to communicate openly and honestly.  It also requires me to go to our Aspen hosts to apologise.

I would like an explanation from you of why this story happened in this way without any contact with anyone concerned and how it could make it through an editing/sub-editing system.  I would like an apology to  me as report collator, and to the people of Aspen who have been very poorly treated in return for their openness and honesty.  I would also like to know why my comment on the story was not published.


Alexa Forbes> Tue 10/10/2017 2:34 p.m. Inbox To:Alexa Forbes; Cc

Dear Ms Forbes – I’m writing with regard to your complaint regarding our article, You don’t need to go anywhere: Why Queenstown beats Aspen.  I am the editor with oversight of our travel team and hence the staff who produced and published the article.

This email is intended to acknowledge receipt of your complaint and to seek clarification on some points. I have copied in the chief executive of your local chamber of commerce, who I note has also complained about the article.

It is clear that you disapprove of the article. That is understood.

The story contains two references to comments attributed to you. These were sourced from this story by Fairfax reporter XXXXXXXX who I understand sourced them from the QLDC report. Could you please confirm whether you consider these comments were incorrect or somehow inaccurate.

It would be helpful to understand if you were similarly concerned about the comments being used in the story XXXXX wrote.

Your email refers to it as a “first step” towards a Press Council complaint. While we respect your right to pursue that course if you feel it appropriate, we would prefer to avoid the Press Council process and resolve your concerns directly. It would help us to understand which of the Council’s principles you feel have been breached by the article, so we can respond more specifically to that concern.

Once I’m clear on those points I’ll be able to respond in more detail. Thank you.

From: Alexa Forbes Wed 11/10/2017 9:36 a.m.

Hi XXXX, I was similarly concerned about XXXX comments and talked to her in person about it at the time.  She apologised.  This discussion took place at the May full council meeting in Wanaka soon after the story was published. It’s  galling to see those words used again and clearly I should have taken my concerns further at that time.  I need to go back to my report to see if at any point I used the words “empty town” I don’t think i did, it’s not how I saw it and I had this discussion with XXXX.  The reason I want to go to the press council is that my original discussion with XXXXX didn’t stick.  How else can i make sure that this time it does and that our Aspen hosts realise that the disservice has been done by press failure rather than by my criticisms?


Alexa Forbes

From:> Sent: Wednesday, 11 October 2017 5:07 p.m. To: Alexa Forbes Cc: Subject: Complaint: Stuff article

Dear Ms Forbes – thank you for contacting us with your complaint about our article, You don’t need to go anywhere: Why Queenstown beats Aspen.

As indicated in my previous email, I’m the editor with oversight of the Travel team, which produced and published the article. I’m responding on behalf of Stuff and Fairfax.

While I can understand the sensitivities that the article may have raised for you around your relationship with people from Aspen; and while I respect your right to criticise the article; I cannot accept your core complaint, that the report you wrote and which was briefly cited in the article, has been, as you put it, “used to erroneously criticise a town which is our sister city”.

By way of wider context, the article is one of a series that our travel team has been producing, comparing New Zealand attractions to famous overseas destinations. It’s intended to be light-hearted, at least slightly tongue-in-cheek, and is very much in line with the tone of much of the content we produce across our travel channel. It was not intended to cause offence. You’ve made clear your disapproval of the piece, but that is not reason for us to change or back down from it.

I have read the article several times; referred to your report; and questioned the reporter about the sources she used to write the piece.

I am certain that the article did not rely on your report in any but the most passing way, and that a reasonable reading of the story would not ascribe the wider aspects of the story to you or your report.

The story would have been written whether your report existed or not. The fact the reporter did not link out to your report reflects that it was not seen as integral to the wider story.

The reporter sourced our comments from an earlier story written by another reporter. That is a very common practice and does not necessarily require the journalist to go back to the original source to verify the reported comment. While I didn’t edit this article, I can’t say that I would have seen any reason to direct the reporter to contact you.

After receiving your complaint, I have made a very minor edit to the story – adding a paragraph return and a few bridging words after one reference to your comments, to remove the potential for any misunderstanding that it was you who said “the hills come alive to the sound of clinking champagne glasses”.

You expressed concern about the difficulty you had getting a comment on the article accepted and published.

This happened because your comment, as a direct criticism of the reporter and a complaint about the story, did not meet our standards for publication; however, the comment should have then been flagged to the appropriate manager to respond to. I apologise that this didn’t happen, as it would have hastened this process of responding to your concerns.

We have discussed this failing with the senior staff who oversee the comment moderation process and the failing has been acknowledged as a learning to take from this.

I note that you said you also discussed XXXXX original reporting with her. I’ve no idea whether your complaint in that case was justified and although I’ve asked, I’m not clear on what action was taken to address it. However, if you have genuine concerns about a story and feel it has inaccurately portrayed a situation, it is always best to take this up with a manager at Stuff if you cannot resolve it with the reporter involved.

Finally, I’ve done my best to respond to the points you’ve raised. I’m still not completely certain whether I’ve addressed what you intended; it reads to me as if you feel that we have done something (used your report as the basis for the entire story) which is simply not the case.

If I’ve misunderstood, I’d be happy to respond to a clearer complaint. If it is more straightforward to discuss on the phone, feel free to call me on Thursday or Friday. My numbers are below.

Many thanks.


National Life & Style editor

From: Alexa Forbes Wednesday, 11 October

Hi Geoff,

Apologies for not making the core complaint clear enough for you to accept.  I will attempt to make it clearer now.

My complaint is that the reference in inverted commas to “empty town” looks like it is attributed to me.  It needs to be made clear it wasn’t from me.  Nowhere in my report have I described Aspen as an “empty town”. When this error was first published by XXXXXX in her article last May, I complained to her in person, she apologised to me. The error has now been repeated and I would like it corrected please in both of these stories so it cannot be repeated again.  In terms of fact, the reference is incorrect, and it looks attributed to me.  In terms of context it is also incorrect, I have been very specific in my use of the word ‘empty’ in the report and did not refer, anywhere in my report, to Aspen as an “empty town”.

It might help for you to understand why I am so sensitive about what seems to you a very minor matter. Queenstown and Aspen are sister cities with many similar issues. Like most sister cities, we aim to learn from each other.  When our delegation visited Aspen in April 2016 our conversations were unusually frank.  I collated an unusually frank report that looked to provide real guidance to Queenstown policy makers – not to criticise our sister city.  When XXXX published her first story, I was extremely disappointed and quite angry.  I expressed this directly to her and she apologised.  I explained that she had jeopardized the full and frank discussions that had begun.  I apologised to the leader of our delegation for XXXXX mis-representation of my report.  I did not take it to the press council because I a) didn’t want to keep the story alive and felt I had dealt with the issue, and b) on reflection, felt there was enough substance to the rest of the story that the more sensational “empty town” comment, while incorrect, didn’t really matter.

However, to see that comment repeated 18 months later without any balance or context, and propping up a story which I find utterly odious anyway, is galling.  It has caused me offence, and has offended at least one member of the delegation and now I have been contacted by an Aspen host who is wondering why I feel this way and what I had seen in Aspen to make this comment.  It is very likely to cause offence to other of our Aspen hosts as it comes to their attention.

Finally, I cannot let the complaint go at this point, otherwise, by your own process description, this story could continue to be perpetuated by journalists who have no interest in context or proper use of sources and will continue to use a story that was inaccurate from the start. So, this complaint will continue until I have sorted the issue or at the very least am fully able to demonstrate that I have exhausted every avenue trying.

I am not interested in your wider context, or how minor my contribution to it is – only in the factual representation of my public report, your wider context is not the basis of my complaint, the wider context of my report is.  Since you do not need my comments or my report to create your story, why are they included?   I would ask you remove it. If you wish to use my public report in any context or any comment, you have a responsibility to do that to a standard, hence my complaint.

Alexa Forbes |  Councillor |  Wakatipu Ward

Queenstown Lakes District Council

Mob: 021 296 4255

E:> Tue 24/10/2017 10:26 a.m. Inbox To:Alexa Forbes;

You replied on 24/10/2017 12:27 p.m..

Hi, and thanks for getting back to me with this – you’ll have seen I was on leave last week.

I’m now clear on your core complaint (beyond your unhappiness with the general story). I’ve amended the story on Stuff as follows: On a recent fact-finding mission to Aspen, Queenstown Lakes district councillor Alexa Forbes noted the impact of the super-rich buying up holiday homes and other properties in the town centre, which often then sat empty for much of the year.

You’ll see I’ve linked out to your report. I’ve also added a footnote to the story:

* An earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted Alexa Forbes as describing Aspen as an “empty town”.

I’ve decided against removing your comments from the story altogether. The report is a public document and our reporters (and anybody else) are free to refer to it if they feel that’s appropriate to their stories. Even though it was a passing reference in the story, removing it would be a disproportionate response on our part.

I’ve also gone back to XXXXX original story and made similar amendments there. While it’s a long time after the story appeared, it will hopefully avoid a repeat of this problem.

I can understand and respect your frustration at how this has played out, and I’ll follow through with the appropriate people here as to why the original error in XXXXXX story was left unaddressed, allowing it to be repeated in the more recent article. We have a clear policy on putting things right when we know they are wrong, and I can’t understand why that didn’t happen 18 months ago. I’ll also debrief on the story with our travel team.

I do regret the unhappiness this has caused you; there was no intention to offend.

XXXXX National Life & Style editor

E | P 64 3 943 2765 | M 027 807 1394 Fairfax Media, 158 Gloucester Street, Christchurch 8140, New Zealand Private Bag 4722, Christchurch, 8140

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