CHRISTOPHER JONES AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2049

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2008

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Misleading

Dr Christopher Jones complained to the Press Council that an article, published in The New Zealand Herald on 3 May 2008, was inaccurate, misleading, and unfair. The complaint is not upheld.

Background
The article was published on 3 May 2008, four days before junior doctors were scheduled to begin a second round of strikes over a pay dispute.

Appearing on page A4, under the headline “Junior doctors have head start”, the article includes a standfirst, a bullet-pointed “summary of an ongoing strike” in bold typeface, centred above the main body of the story, and a graphic down the right hand side.

The standfirst says “They begin work on double the pay of other grads but have bigger debt and longer hours.” The summary includes two bullet points summarising the respective positions of each party to the dispute:

• Junior doctors want a 30-per cent base-salary increase in their pay over three years. Add other increases in the salary package and their combined claim will lift their pay by 40 per cent over three years – or 13.3 per cent a year.
• DHBs have offered them an overall increase of 4.25 per cent a year. Alternatively, DHBs offered to pay junior doctors an up-front sum of 4.25 percent to avoid further strikes, followed by an independent commission sponsored by the Ministry of Health to establish terms of reference both the DHBs and the doctors can agree to.

The graphic has a subheadline “Just what the doctors ordered” and a descriptor:
How junior doctors’ pay stacks up against 14 other NZ occupations. Study length, average student loan and approximate starting salary, 2008.”
It compares the years of training, level of student debt and “starting pay” across 15 different professions that require tertiary training. The professions are sorted by salary and, at a starting pay of $88,000, doctors top the list. The next closest contender is dentists at a starting pay of $78,000. Lawyers come in last at a starting pay of $30,000.

At an average of $75,000, doctors also have the highest average student loan by a considerable margin; apart from dentists at $60,000 of debt, vets at $50,000, academic at $43,000 and optometrist at $40,000, the other ten listed professions have average debts of $30,000 or less. Nurses have the lowest average debt at $18,000.

Doctors require six years of tertiary training, the only listed profession to exceed that requirement is an academic with a PhD which requires eight years of tertiary training and has a starting pay of $64,000. Nurses require the least amount of training, at three years, and have a starting pay of $40,000.

The story itself begins with the statement that “The thousands of junior doctors striking this Tuesday over their pay dispute earn more than double that of starting lawyers, scientists, accountants and architects, a Weekend Herald investigation has discovered.” It goes on to say that doctors have the biggest student loans and work longer hours than most graduates. The ‘investigation’ is reported to be based on “estimates from various industry sources and university figures”

A letter from Dr Jones disputing the accuracy of the doctors’ starting pay was published in The New Zealand Herald on Wednesday, 5 May 2008, under the subheading “Get the figures right.”

On 8 May 2008 the deputy editor formally replied to Dr Jones’ letter advising that the figure of $88,000 had been supplied by the DHBNZ and was based on “a review of national salary data for first-year doctors”. He noted that Dr Jones’ letter had been published on 5 May but maintained that $88,000 was “the most accurate figure available”. The deputy editor defended the article as

… a fair attempt to put the issue in perspective. It stressed that some of the figures were approximate and also that doctors trained for longer, had larger student debts and worked longer hours than most graduates.

Complaint to the Press Council
Not satisfied with the newspaper’s response, on 16 May 2008 Dr Jones complained to the Press Council on grounds that it was inaccurate, misleading and unfair in breach of principle 1 (accuracy).

Dr Jones referred to the Multi-Employer Collective Agreement (MECA) between the Resident Doctors’ Association (RDA) and DHBNZ. The salary rates set out in MECA are roughly $47,000-$88,000, calculated according to average weekly hours worked. In order to get a base salary of approximately $88,000, a first year doctor would need to work in excess of 65 hours a week over the whole of the year. Dr Jones argued that that would be the exception rather than the rule; the vast majority of first year doctors have an annual starting salary of $60-69,000 (which would reflect an annual work average of between 50 and 65 hours a week). On that basis, Dr Jones argued that the reported approximate ‘starting pay’ of $88,000 was both inaccurate and misleading.

Dr Jones also argued that, given that DHBNZ was involved in contract negotiations, the newspaper ought to have checked the figures with RDA as the other party to the dispute to ensure balanced reporting. Alternatively, the reporter could have asked both the DHBNZ and RDA how many hours the average first year doctor worked and then calculated for himself the approximate starting salary using the rates set down in MECA.

The Newspaper’s Response
In response, the deputy editor of the Herald said that the salary rates Dr Jones referred to were merely “base rates” and that MECA includes “numerous other elements of remuneration that junior doctors earn on top of those basic scales.” He insisted that the newspaper did check its figures and that $88,000 is “the most accurate figure available”.

The deputy editor argued that RDA had its own reasons for playing down the amount that young doctors earn. However, in publishing Dr Jones’ letter to the editor, the newspaper had allowed him to challenge the accuracy of the figure reported.

Further Correspondence
In further correspondence, Dr Jones challenged the newspaper’s claim to have checked its figures, noting that the newspaper had failed to provide any explanation as to how the DHBNZ had calculated the figure of $88,000 and why that should be regarded as “the most accurate figure available”. He argued that in choosing to use the DHBNZ figure incorporating “numerous other elements” of first year doctors’ remuneration in addition to salary, the newspaper had inflated the doctors’ salary and thereby prevented any accurate comparison with the other professions.

In response, the deputy editor provided a document prepared by DHBNZ, setting out the basis on which first year doctors’ approximate starting pay was reported as $88,000. That document reproduces the same MECA base salary rate table that Dr Jones had put before the Press Council, and quite expressly records that the average first year doctor earns an annual base salary of $70,138, which falls into the salary band for working an average of 55-59.9 hours a week, albeit noting that there are mechanisms that can inflate the pay scale above the actual hours worked. Additional remuneration payments, accounting for an average 21.6% of total earnings, include such things as public holiday payments, and various forms of overtime or penal rates. Taking the average salary, that 21.6% is calculated as $15,150, making a subtotal of $85,288. To that is added an estimated average superannuation of $2,473, making a total of $87,761 taxable income. The document also notes that additional employment costs not amounting to remuneration include such things as professional expenses (practising certificates and membership fees), indemnity insurance, expense claims and recruitment, retention and relocation expenses.

The deputy editor argues that the comparative analysis across the professions was based on taxable income, not base salaries. For example, the $35,000 starting pay reported for journalists includes $3000 of extras like overtime and shift allowances. He also asserts that junior lawyers are paid a flat salary with no allowances for overtime despite being expected to work doctor-like hours at times. The only basis the deputy editor gives for that assertion, first put forward in the letter of 8 May 2008, is that he asked counsel retained by the Herald. The newspaper has not provided any other examples or evidence of the way in which the starting pay attributed to each profession was calculated.

Decision
Principle 1 provides that newspapers should be guided at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission.

The article was founded on the bold claim that doctors “begin work on double the pay of other grads”. Reference to an investigation “based on estimates from various industry sources and university figures” and the sophisticated graphic suggested a degree of statistical reliability. However, the newspaper’s response to Dr Jones’ complaint has revealed some serious flaws in the statistical base.

The DHBNZ breakdown of first year doctors’ remuneration makes it very clear that the average salary is approximately $70,000 a year. The newspaper baldly claimed that all the ‘starting pay’ figures used were calculated as taxable income. That is not the ordinary way in which the term ‘starting pay’ would be used and the article does not indicate that the term is being used in a specialised way. Nor does the deputy editor’s discussion of the way in which two of the other ‘starting pay’ figures were ascertained instil confidence that the newspaper took care to ensure that like really was compared to like. It was also imprudent to rely solely on figures provided by one side of a dispute without first putting those figures to the other side for comment; statistics are rarely clear cut.

The story was published in the midst of stalled pay talks, when feelings were running high. The overall impression given by the story, particularly by the headlines and graphics, was that the doctors were being unreasonable. But the salary figure was either inaccurate (not the average base salary) or misleading (comparing apples and oranges) and, because of that, the story was unfair.

However, the prompt publication of Dr Jones’ letter, under a subheadline that clearly signalled that the statistics were in dispute and provided a broader picture, was sufficient to correct that unfairness and, therefore, the complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Lynn Scott and Alan Samson

John Gardner took no part in the consideration of this complaint.