JULIE FOGARTY AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2601

Council Meeting: JULY 2017

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. Julie Fogarty complains about an article published by Stuff on March 2, 2017, and updated in May 2017. The complaint is mainly of a breach of Press Council Principle 1, concerning accuracy, fairness and balance, but Principles 4 (opinion and fact) and 6 (headlines) are also cited.

2. The Press Council does not uphold the complaints.

Background

3. On March 2, 2017, Stuff published a short article, sourced from a Fairfax publication in Australia, but originating from the USA. It was headed “Grieving Mum’s message: “If I’d given him just one bottle, he’d be still alive” and concerned the death of a newborn baby, apparently from severe dehydration. The article described the events leading to the death of the baby, who was exclusively breast-fed, and included a link to the “Fed is Best” website.

4. The article included an excerpt from the much longer story (also headed “If I’d given him just one bottle, he’d be still alive”) on the “Fed is Best” website, including a quote from the mother, Jillian Johnson, as follows “And the best advice I was given by one of his NICU doctors while he was on life support is sure breast is best, but follow with the bottle. This way you know your baby has eaten enough…”

5. After Ms Fogarty had complained to Stuff about the March 2 article, it was amended by

  • the removal of information not relevant to New Zealand practice.
  • the addition of a section headed “New Zealand Advice”, quoting from Plunket’s national adviser.
  • a link to a much longer Stuff article which combined the stories of two mothers’ experiences with advice on breast feeding and a list of warning signs for dehydration or malnutrition.

The Complaint

6. Ms Fogarty’s main complaint is of inaccuracy and a lack of balance in the article. In particular she says it

  • “Raised the idea of exclusive breastfeeding as an unquantified mortality risk, omitting the greater level of health risks involved with the bottle and/or formula use in newborns
  • Raised the idea (a paediatrician’s recommendation) of universal bottle supplementation for breastfed newborns, omitting information on that practice’s tendency to feature in newborn dehydration cases
  • Raised the idea of the global Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative’s prioritisation of breastfeeding being dangerously biased, omitting scientific evidence that “its practices have improved newborn health outcomes (including dehydration issues) at population level”.

7. To summarise, Ms Fogarty submits that the article is biased and inaccurate in its depiction of breastfeeding as risky while ignoring or downplaying the greater dangers of bottle feeding or bottle supplementation.

8. Ms Fogarty acknowledges that amendments and additions were made to the story after her complaint, but does not consider them sufficient to counter the bias and inaccuracy she has identified.

9. Under Principle 4, Ms Fogarty complains that in paraphrasing opinions, the journalist has presented them as fact. She refers to the opinions of the mother and the co-founder of Fed is Best (a medical doctor) and to two specific examples – the normal spacing of feeds and the message that the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative prevents mothers from electing to formula feed.

10. Under Principle 6. Ms Fogarty says the key message from the article is that breast feeding should be supplemented (“Sure, breast is best, but follow with a bottle. That way you know your baby has eaten enough”). It is specifically described as a message, rather than being put in a more general “human interest context. However at no point is the mother quoted as saying “Just one bottle . . .” She notes the “Just one bottle” is a campaign run by the Fed is Best Foundation and counters an established global health message that “Just one bottle” can introduce health risks.

11. In general, Ms Fogarty says the story could have been run in a way that respected and gave voice to Jillian Johnson’s experience and opinions while carefully offering some information to counter the inaccuracies. It should be noted that Ms Fogarty has supplied a substantial amount of scientific and medical evidence in support of her complaint. She has also supplied an analysis and critique of Stuff material on breastfeeding, ranging from articles to advertisements, and expresses concern about the general trend of the material.

The Response

12. Geoff Collett, National Life and Style editor for Stuff, responded to the complaint. He made five main points:

    • The original article was a valid news item which was reported in line with journalistic convention.
    • The complainant’s concern was considered fully and seriously in a timely fashion, and further content was added to the original article to address that concern
    • Stuff acted responsibly in ensuring ongoing coverage of the wider issues that concerned the complainant
    • The article and the Stuff response are in line with the principle of balance and fairness
    • The article is clearly a piece of reportage and does not breach the Press Council principle regarding news and comment.

13. In Mr Collett’s view, Ms Fogarty does not understand the role of the news media in covering stories such as the one in question. It is different from the role of medical researchers and health educators, and is to “report newsworthy issues in a way which will interest our audience, not to “encroach” on the educational responsibilities of the state health sector”.

14. To summarise, Mr Collett submits that the article was an accurate representation of the mother’s experience with no attempt to mislead or deceive. It would be unreasonable to include the level of detail apparently expected by Ms Fogarty.

15. In relation to Principle 4, the story was sourced from a reputable news organisation, clearly reported and linked back to further information from which the wider context of the story was evident. The reporter was not expressing a personal opinion. In relation to Principle 6, the headline is a direct quote from the article and a fair representation of the mother’s message.

The Decision

16. It needs to be said that the Press Council cannot look into Ms Fogarty’s concerns about the trend of Stuff stories about baby feeding as the time for accepting a complaint about them is long past. Equally it is not the Press Council’s function, nor does it have the expertise, to weigh up the scientific and medical evidence presented by Ms Fogarty. It can only consider the submissions made to it and determine whether there has been a breach of the Principles.

17. This case needs to be considered in the context of the conflict between the complainant’s concern that mothers be given accurate and detailed information about the risks and benefits of both breast and bottle feeding, and the publication’s concern to present a simple “human interest” story to evoke an emotional response in readers.

18. While the Press Council largely accepts Mr Collett’s submissions on the role of the media and the difference between news reporting and public health education, if it had been called on to consider only the original article published by Stuff, it is very likely that it would have upheld the complaint under Principle 1. The article gives a somewhat sensational account of the sad story of the death of a baby in what appear to be highly unusual circumstances. The general message of the article, and of the website to which Stuff supplied a link, is about risks of exclusive breastfeeding without any counterbalancing material on the risks of bottle feeding. The Press Council accepts that the article was intended as a “human interest” rather than as an educational story, but that does not exempt Stuff from its obligations of accuracy and balance. The impression given is that little, if any, thought was given by the editor to the messages underlying the story, or, indeed to its relevance and suitability for New Zealand readers. It is certainly not placed in the context of an ongoing debate about baby feeding and could well alarm an uninformed reader into uncritical acceptance of the unbalanced message.

19. Two members of the Council - Mark Stevens and Vernon Small - disagreed that the original version of the story breached Principle 1. They felt even the earlier version carried enough balance about the benefits of breastfeeding in what was otherwise a specific account of the Johnson's situation. They also noted that media reporting around breastfeeding benefits was very long running and so it would not be necessary when assessing it against the principle of balance to look at this particular story in isolation.

20. However, to its credit, Stuff took immediate and substantial action on receipt of Ms Fogarty’s complaint. The question, therefore, is whether that action was sufficient. Ms Fogarty considers that it was not. She says it really addresses only one misleading point from the original story and that most of her original concerns remain.

21. The Press Council is of the view that Stuff took adequate steps to counter the imbalance of the original story. That story was a “human interest” story and Stuff countered it with two further stories that gave a much wider perspective. It also added some advice appropriate to the New Zealand context and indicated where further reliable information could be found.

22. As to Principle 4, the Press Council can find no indication of the expression of opinion by the reporter in the story. It appears to be largely straightforward factual reportage with any opinion material attributed to the mother or the medical personnel involved.

23. Similarly with regard to Principle 6, the headline reflects a key point from the Stuff article, which in turn reflects the same point from the longer article on the “Fed is Best” website. It may not have used the precise words of Ms Johnson as quoted in the article, but the import is clear.

Decision

The complaints are not upheld.


Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.