SARAH BRONTE AGAINST SUNLIVE

Case Number: 2522

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2016

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Undefined

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Unfair Coverage

Overview

Sarah Bronte, a Tauranga dental surgeon, complains against an article published bySunLive on June 30, 2016.

Background

The article, headed ‘Focus on Fluoride Fears’, carries what could fairly be described as an anti-fluoridation message and also mentions the pending visit of “international fluoridation expert, Professor Paul Connett”, who was to speak at the Tauranga Citizens’ Club explaining why fluoridation should not be introduced to Tauranga’s water. As a result of a binding referendum, fluoridation was stopped in Tauranga in 1992. It is fair to say that Professor Connett is a well-known opponent of fluoridation.

The Complaint

Ms Bronte alleges breach of the ‘accuracy, fairness and balance’ principle. She states that in this instance no voice was given to opposing views, despite it being the view of 95 per cent of dental health professionals in New Zealand. She refers to a number of other matters to support her view that fluoridation is in the interests of better public health. She complains that a number of quotes made by Tracy Livingston, the Tauranga convenor of Fluoride Free New Zealand, are unattributed; that there are no links to relevant websites, and that no balance is provided.

The Response

The editor of SunLive stated the article in question was to “inform people who wanted to attend the meeting.” She goes on to say that SunLive is a digital news outlet that provides a forum for the community to voice their opinions on an issue, which is clear from comments below the story. She said they reserved the right to delete any comments which may be racist, defamatory or contain offensive language.

The editor relied on the principles outlined on the Press Council’s website as follows:“In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view.Exceptions may apply for long-running issues where every side of an issue or argument cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion and reportage of proceedings where balance is to be judged on a number of stories, rather than a single report.”

The editor considered the fluoride issue was one of those situations. She states, in her response, that balance is provided on the basis of previous stories and that there was, and is, constant opportunity in this live debate for Ms Bronte, or anyone else, to publish a counter-argument at any point. She says Ms Bronte has chosen not to take this opportunity, but rather to launch a broad-brush complaint to the Press Council.

She concludes by saying “Ms Bronte was given ample opportunity to specify which fact she disputed, and decided to go to the Press Council instead of giving us the courtesy of being able to respond to her claims. We stand by our report and our reporter.”

The Decision

If the editor is suggesting that because this is an online forum the principles of the Press Council do not apply, that is quite wrong. The Press Council has stated previously that, while we appreciate the desire to have stories online as quickly as possible that does not excuse publications from full compliance with Press Council principles, for exampleArmstrong v Rotorua Review, Davidson v Wairarapa Times-Age. We also note that this was a well-reasoned complaint which, it seems to the Council, was handled in a most cavalier way by the publication. Editors have a serious obligation to complainants.

We also do not consider that the complaint is a broad-brush one. The complainant pointed out in her emails to the reporter that she included reference to the literature that she has also forwarded to the Press Council regarding the alleged “facts” in the initial article. She also pointed out that the local DHB was mentioned several times, although their views were not included.

It is true that where there are major matters of public controversy, with both sides taking an entrenched view, the Press Council has held previously that it is not necessary in every case to provide balance, because of the long-running nature of the debate. However, we see this situation as somewhat different and we do not accept the editor’s statement that this was merely an article to promote the public meeting with Professor Connett.

The headline gives the lie to that, with the statement ‘Focus on Fluoride Fears’. The other issue we have with the article is that a large part of it consists of quotes from the convenor of Fluoride Free New Zealand Tauranga, Ms Livingston. To be blunt, it reads like a regurgitated press release. Many of the portions of the article that are not direct quotes are attributed to this person.

In the past there have been a number of decisions dealing with fluoridation. Some of these related to the non-publication of letters to the editor, which raise different considerations.Another related to an opinion piece, which again raises a different consideration.Indeed, many of the Council’s comments about there being no need to provide balance in every article dealing with a long-running issue deal with opinion pieces.

This is not an opinion piece, and the parallel we see is with a recent decision of the Council inCase 2510, Toi Te Ora Public Health Service against Whakatane Beacon.While not exactly the same, the article presents as fact a number of matters that are highly contentious and disputed by the other side of the debate.It in no way brings balance, nor do we consider it fair in the circumstances.The editor refers to earlier balancing articles, but produces none of them — therefore, we are unclear of their frequency or context in this particular publication.

We are satisfied the complaint should be upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.