Case Number: 971

Council Meeting: MAY 2004

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

Ruling Categories: Discrimination
Balance, Lack Of

Two people laid formal complaints about an article “Going Straight” which was published in the November 9 edition of the Sunday Star-Times. The complainants addressed their concerns individually to the newspaper (and eventually the Press Council) but the newspaper responded with the same defence in the same terms to each person and to the Press Council. The complaints are dealt with here together.

The Press Council has not upheld either of the complaints.

The article used as its starting point a syndicated report from Britain’s Sunday Telegraph on a controversial research paper by American psychiatrist, Professor Robert L Spitzer of Columbia University. The paper was published in October 2003 in the Archives of Sexual Behavior journal. The standfirst to the Sunday Star-Times article stated “A reputable American study has found that gays can change their sexuality. Lauren Quaintance meets Kiwi sexual converts.” The article summarised, “Of 200 former homosexuals in Spitzer’s study, 78% of males and 95% of females who voluntarily underwent therapy reported a change in their sexuality. And of the 143 men and 57 women, 66% of males and 44% of females had achieved what Spitzer described as ‘good heterosexual functioning’.”

The Sunday Star-Times followed fairly usual journalistic practice and looked for a local human interest angle to illustrate the summarised research. The article included interviews with three New Zealanders who were among “a low-profile group of former homosexuals and lesbians who believed they had changed their sexual orientation.”

As well, the newspaper reported that “reorientation therapy” was shunned by the majority of mainstream psychiatrists and psychotherapists, and quoted Dr Gavin Stansfield as a New Zealand psychiatrist who works with gay men and who said that such therapy was “dangerous and harmful because what it does is reinforce the shame and self-loathing that some people have about their homosexual feelings.”

While detailing the experiences of the New Zealanders who reported changing their orientation to heterosexuality, the newspaper also asserted that the claims of “ex-gays” were rubbished by gay groups, and that although most ex-gays were Christian, for some that was only part of the problem and the cure. The article also said, unsurprisingly 93% of the participants in the Spitzer study described themselves as devoutly religious, but Spitzer said that while that made them “highly motivated” they nonetheless met his definition of heterosexuality.

Dean Spooner and Christopher Dempsey made separate formal complaints at different times to the editor about the article. Among their many carefully considered points, Spooner disputed the newspaper’s description of the study as reputable, saying of the 200 self-selected subjects a significant number had been referred to Dr Spitzer by conservative Christian groups specialising in “converting” gays and lesbians. He said it was not accurate for the newspaper to report the survey in such broad terms when the context, the small number involved and the debatable nature of the change were overlooked. The fact the survey was conducted only by phone interviews made it unreliable.

Mr Dempsey said the editor of the journal which printed the study wrote in a lengthy editorial that he insisted on detailed peer review commentaries being published at the same time, and received 26 commentaries from 42 people of whom 32 were critical of the study. He was personally annoyed that the newspaper defended itself simply as reporting the study, without critically engaging with it and investigating it more thoroughly.

Mr Spooner said the broad opening assertion of the article that the study found “gays can change their sexuality” was misleading because the study found only a tiny percentage changed from gay to straight, and quoted an interview with Dr Spitzer in which he was reported saying “…the kinds of changes my subjects reported are highly unlikely to be available to the vast majority of [gays and lesbians]…”. Both complainants were critical of the generalisations about homosexuals and lesbians expressed by the interview subjects, and felt the article unbalanced and unfair and likely to encourage intolerance towards gay and lesbian New Zealanders as well as personal unease among them.

The editor defended the article to the complainants (whom she invited to write letters for publication) and to the Press Council. Her points included that the study was described as reputable because it was by a professor at a mainstream, respected university. The story revealed the “devoutly religious” orientation of the subjects, and whatever interviews with Dr Spitzer were reported, it was indisputable that his main conclusion was that some gays and lesbians were able to change core aspects of their sexual orientation. Nor were the interviewees chosen to reinforce “myths” but simply asked about their life stories, and their experience was faithfully reported. The editor repeated the report from the American magazine Psychology Today which defended the rights of therapists to offer sexual reorientation therapy.

In summary, she told the Press Council the purpose of the story was not to deconstruct the Spitzer study but rather to localise a Sunday Telegraph story by interviewing New Zealanders who believe they have been able to change their sexuality. In that regard, the Spitzer study was a springing off point; the profiles of the “ex-gays” were the substance of the story. She said because it was not possible to interview Dr Spitzer, it was unrealistic to expect that they would be able to critique the methodology used in the study.

The arguments of the complainants are as much with Spitzer’s study and the views of those interviewed as they are with the newspaper. In fact, the newspaper was caught in the dilemma facing all publications reporting on expert areas, particularly academic papers in fields such as medicine, science or psychiatry. In whatever way the press tackles these subjects, proponents for all sides of any issue will be critical that their purpose is not being served with sufficient advocacy. The editor rightly says in her defence that journalists cannot be experts in a field, whether it is psychology or physics, and are forced to assess the credibility of institutions and the academics who undertake the studies they report.

However, while there were references in this article to acknowledge some of the issues raised, perhaps more attention could have been paid to the sensitive social and political currents which swirl around an ostensibly scientific study such as this. One of the dangers of relying largely on secondary sources is that the original debate can be missed. That the study was about a minority and evoked much criticism could have been more clearly dealt with by the article with more balancing information, even while the focus was local human interest. Some of the fundamental criticisms of Spitzer’s methods and findings were available independently of interviewing the study’s author. However, the treatment of the study in the article does not reach the threshold for the complaint to be upheld.

The complaints are not upheld.