ANDY BOREHAM AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2214

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2011

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Headlines and Captions
Accuracy
Misleading
Sensationalism
Unfair Coverage

The Press Council has upheld a complaint against the Stuff website concerning a headline over a report linking a man's death to use of the synthetic cannabis product Kronic.

Background
On August 5 Stuff headlined a report Man dies after smoking Kronic - police.

The story quoted Perth police as saying the man had had a heart attack. He was rushed to Rockingham hospital believed to be suffering from cardiac arrest. He could not be revived. "Police believe he may have been smoking Kronic Black Label in the lead up to his death," the report said.

It went on to say that the synthetic cannabis product made its way on to Perth streets just over a month after the first form of the synthetic drug was outlawed in Australia.

It said New Zealand had approved a temporary ban on the products "this week", with amendments to misuse of drugs legislation "that will come into force today". The rest of the short report backgrounded the effects of the New Zealand law change, and reasons for the action.

The Stuff story was actually an amalgamation of two: It combined a New Zealand story (produced by Stuff) with a report in Perth's WA Today.

WA Today's report, on August 5 2011, was a more general account about the WA government banning 14 more synthetic cannabinoids "after what is believed to be the first death related to the drug Kronic". It said a 38-year-old man "died last night after suffering a heart attack moments after smoking synthetic cannabis, police said."

The Complaint
Mr Boreham contends that, because the cause of the man's death had not been established, it was unfair for Stuff to use a headline suggesting explicitly that Kronic was to blame.

He said police were reported as saying the man may have been smoking Kronic before his death from a heart attack. The headline was scare-mongering and sensationalism, to the detriment of accurate and fair reporting.

"No reasonable reader, upon seeing this headline, would surmise that what Stuff.co.nz is really saying is that a man died and he may also have smoked Kronic but that the two are probably unrelated. The reasonable reader would understand that a man has died and it is, at least most likely, explicitly caused by the prior use of Kronic. There is no evidence as such, which leaves the headline purely in the realms of conjecture."

Extending correlation vs causality theory could produce another result, for example if the man had drunk coffee the day he died, or if he had eaten sugar, the heading could have read: "Man dies after drinking coffee" or "Man dies after eating sugar".

Stuff was joining the bandwagon of backlash against products such as Kronic and using that as license to employ questionable journalistic methods that misled the public.

Stuff Response
Editor Mark Stevens rejected the argument that the headline was sensationalism, scare-mongering or inaccurate/unfair reporting. It was accurate and reflected the body of the story.

The language used was deliberate – the man died after smoking Kronic, rather than saying he had died from smoking it.

The story had been very much in the public interest, and relevant to a New Zealand audience. The New Zealand Government had that week amended the misuse of drugs legislation to ban the product. Mr Boreham's references to coffee and sugar were irrelevant, as the Government had not banned them that week, unlike the drug product.

Complainant's Response:
Mr Boreham said the report quoted police as saying the man may have smoked Kronic before his death. "It was not fact, it was conjecture."

The headline that was used would have been misleading to the average reader, who would understand the word "after" in this context to mean "because of".

Mr Boreham said a quick search of the Stuff website revealed eight recent headlines in which the word "after" was used in the same context as "because of". He provided the examples.

Press Council View
The Press Council appreciates the difficulty of conveying precise meanings in a short headline. However, a headline should still accurately convey the substance of the following report.

The Stuff account said Australian police used the word may, in suggesting a link between the man's death and his Kronic use. However, the actual cause of death had not been proven.

The complaint is upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.