MORGAN CONSTABLE AGAINST SUNDAY STAR-TIMES

Case Number: 2272

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2012

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

Ruling Categories: Drugs
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

Morgan Constable complained that a report on the website Stuff.co.nz, giving the findings of recent research into driving under the influence of drugs, was biased against cannabis, inaccurate and unfair. The complaint was not upheld.

The news item, originated by the Sunday Star-Times, comprised just 10 paragraphs on the website. It reported that research had shown cannabis use could double the risk of a serious or fatal crash. It included figures for the number of New Zealand drivers found "under the influence" of cannabis since roadside drug testing was introduced at the end of 2009 and cited Canadian research published in the British Medical Journal that found acute cannabis consumption could be linked to an increase in crash rates. A breakdown of New Zealand crash statistics showed that of the 48 percent of deceased drivers who had traces of alcohol or drugs in their blood, cannabis was present in 19 percent of them, alcohol in 27 percent and a further 28 percent had traces of both alcohol and cannabis.

Mr Constable complained that the story contained no basis for the claim in its opening sentence that smoking cannabis would double the chance of a serious or fatal crash. In cases where cannabis was present it could not be assumed the driver was under its influence, he said, because cannabis remains in the body long after its effects cease to be felt. Furthermore, the Canadian researcher's conclusions were not as definite as the story suggested.

He noted the figures given in the story showed alcohol featured more in accidents yet the report concentrated on cannabis. It was part of "a continued and unjustified vilification of cannabis" that only served to prolong its prohibition. To pick one drug out of many in the research was poor journalism to the point of scare-mongering. To make matters worse, the website had not enabled comments to be made on the story.

The editor of the Sunday Star-Times said the article was not intended to be biased against cannabis. It was an accurate portrayal of the research, backing it with New Zealand statistics. "I am not qualified to comment on whether cannabis suffers unjustified vilification," he said, "but confess to a belief that driving pissed or stoned is generally a bad idea."

He said it was impossible to open every article online for comment. The failure to do so in this case was a coincidence not a conspiracy.

The editor supplied the Press Council with copies of the New Zealand and Canadian research. The newspaper's report that the research showed cannabis doubled the chance of a serious or fatal crash was based on the Canadian paper which stated: "Driving under the influence of cannabis was associated with a significantly increased risk of motor vehicle collisions compared with unimpaired driving (odds ratio 1.92 (95 percent confidence interval 1.35 to 2.73))" The research paper concluded: "Acute cannabis consumption nearly doubles the risk of a collision resulting in serious injury or death..."

This material was made available to the complainant who responded that the newspaper's report ought to have contained more detail of the research and the website could have given a link to it. The Council did not agree that the detail needed to be in the news item, it added nothing to the opening sentence. Nor did the Council agree that the newspaper was wrong to focus on cannabis rather than alcohol and other drugs mentioned in the New Zealand research. The effect of cannabis on driving is probably less well known.

Having read the research paper, Mr Constable suggested one particular statement in the newspaper's report was inaccurate. The news item said, "The research found cannabis significantly impaired the psychomotor response, or muscle activity linked to mental processes." However, the study had actually suggested, "cannabis impairs performance of the cognitive and motor tasks necessary for safe driving, increasing the risk of collision." The Council doubted the distinction in terms would make any difference to general readers.

It was unfortunate the website did not make the story open to reader's comments but the Council accepted that it was not practical to do this for all stories. Published comment has to be constantly moderated and websites do not have the staff to do so for all items. They choose those they believe likely to generate debates of general interest.

The newspaper's assessment of the public interest in cannabis was reflected in the brevity of its report. The complainant clearly believed the subject deserved a more extensive story, which could have noted that the Canadian study contained several statements admitting the limitations of the research and its possible applications. The New Zealand statistics report, in a note on its limitations, acknowledges that "the presence of drugs and alcohol in the study does not necessarily infer significant impairment." It admits "a lack of a strong correlation between tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels and driver impairment". But the newspaper's report reasonably refers to drivers "who appeared to be sufficiently impaired for police to perform a drug test".

The newspaper did not go beyond the facts and figures provided by the research. In the Council's view its succinct report was sufficiently accurate. The complaint was not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.