SCIENCE MEDIA CENTRE AGAINST WAIRARAPA TIMES-AGE

Case Number: 2425

Council Meeting: MARCH 2015

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Wairarapa Times-Age

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

Science Media Centre (the complainant) complained about a story published in the Wairarapa Times-Age on February 10, 2015.

They believe that the story breached Principle 1 (Accuracy, Fairness and Balance) of the New Zealand Press Council Statement of Principles.

The complaint is not upheld.

Background
The story was headed “Use of natural remedies is on the rise”. It included comments and stories from New Zealanders who claimed the use of natural remedies had alleviated or cured their disease, comments from natural remedy practitioners and concluded with a comment from a DHB cancer care co-ordinator who encouraged those living with cancer to consult their doctor or specialist before using any alternative therapies.

The story did not include any comment on the reporter’s or newspaper’s own opinion regarding the use of natural remedies, only comments and opinions of those interviewed.

Complaint
The complainant said that the story was unbalanced as it did not include information or any commentary questioning the efficacy of homeopathic or herbal treatments.

They agree that the reader will make up their own minds, but believe that the story should also have contained comments from those who have an opposing view which would have provided balance.

While the Press Council’s principle of balance allows an exception if the subject of an article is a long-running issue, the editor of the Wairarapa Times Age had offered no examples of the debate on alternative remedies playing out in his newspaper. Clippings available from its archive show its previous stories on homeopathy in recent years have been similarly uncritical and unbalanced.

The Science Media Centre has been working constructively with journalists, editors and producers for seven years to improve coverage of science-related issues. It offered to work with the Times-Age after the publication of the article concerned but found no willingness to address the issue.
The Newspaper’s Response
In reply to the complaint, the editor said the theme of the story was about ardent proponents of alternative treatment – practitioners who could speak to their practice and opinions from those who use, or have family members who use, alternative treatments and concluded with a comment from the DHB.
While the complainant challenges the information as to the efficacy of alternative treatment as described in the story, those interviewed believed in the truth of what they were saying.

The story expressed no opinion on behalf of the newspaper regarding alternative treatment.

While there are diverse views on the subject, those who believe in alternative treatment such as those interviewed are as entitled to their view as those who hold an opposing view. The story was about personal views of actual people.

The story had generated debate within the community in the comment section of the newspaper’s website with the majority of participants not in favour of alternative treatment.

Discussion and Decision
The story did not advocate for alternative treatment nor express a view as to the efficacy of alternative treatment on behalf of the newspaper.
It was very clear that the views described in the story were those of people who either practiced alternative medicine or who had been involved either personally or as a support person in the use of alternative medicine.

The story concluded with a comment from the DHB that anyone with cancer considering alternative medicine should consult their doctor or specialist before embarking on any alternative therapies.

Alternative medicine is a topic that creates debate with proponents on both sides. It is a longstanding and ongoing debate and it is not in the expertise of the Press Council to comment regarding the efficacy or not of alternative medicine.

The story was clearly written as the views of those interviewed and any reasonable reader would have recognised it as such. There was no subterfuge and the newspaper did not express a view itself.

While the complainant would have preferred the newspaper to write a story that included their view of alternative medicine, the story was about people and their own experience not that of the two sides of the debate.

It was clear from the debate on the newspaper’s own website that there are differing views held in the community and that people are able to make up their own minds as to how they feel about the issue.

The Press Council agrees with the editor that the debate over alternative remedies is sufficiently well known not to require balancing comment in every story about them. The subject falls within the exception to the principle of balance for issues of enduring public discussion.

The complainant in this case raised the important question of whether the exception can be invoked for an article in a newspaper that may not itself have covered both sides of the debate. The Council considered this point closely and came to the view that the exception has not been applied as narrowly as the complainant contends and should not be. A newspaper, even if it is the sole newspaper of its locality, does not exist in a vacuum. Its readers, meeting an uncritical story on the supposed popularity of homeopathy and natural remedies, are likely to be aware the efficacy of these treatments is strongly contested by medical science.

Newspapers ought to take greater advantage of the service the Science Media Centre provides. The story in this case would, in the Council’s view, have been better if the claims made for alternative remedies had been balanced by a scientific view. The final paragraph, giving the district health board advice to consult a doctor, was not sufficient for balance, especially as it referred only to cancer sufferers. Its inclusion suggests the newspaper was aware of the story’s deficiency.

Nevertheless, this is a subject covered by the exception to the balance principle. The article was not advocating the therapies mentioned, or offering a critique of them. It was reporting the views of people in its locality who offered or used them. It goes without saying that the medical science does not support them.

The complaint was not upheld.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.
Vernon Small abstained from voting.