TOI TE ORA PUBLIC HEALTH SERVICE AGAINST WHAKATANE BEACON

Case Number: 2510

Council Meeting: MAY 2016

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Whakatane Beacon

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

Overview

Whakatane Beacon is the main newspaper of Whakatane. On February 3, 2016 it published two articles on the decision by the Whakatane District Council to cease fluoridation of its water supply. Note: the decision was subsequently reversed by the council.

The first article headlined Dentist group dispels dire warning message gives the views of Stan Litras, spokesman for Fluoride Information Network for Dentists (an anti-fluoridation group), that Bay of Plenty DHB claims that increased tooth decay would result from removal of fluoride were not supported by reliable metadata studies.

The second article No Fluoride commonsense to campaigner gives the views of Jon Burness, Fluoride Free Whakatane spokesman, who reports that Ministry of Health figures show no justification for adding fluoride.

The Complaint

Debbie Phillips, Communications Advisor, Toi Te Ora Public Health, complained about the inaccuracy in the headline and the inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced (Principle 1) reporting in the stories. Key elements of the complaint are:

  • The news article “Dentist group dispels dire warning message” is almost entirely a reprint of a press release and was not identified as such;
  • Dr Neil de Wet of the DHB was mentioned several times in the article but was never contacted or given a right of reply by theBeacon;
  • The headline refers to a dire warning message, however, the article does not detail the alleged dire warning message;
  • The advice provided by Dr de Wet in the RNZ interview on the potential loss of benefit of water fluoridation when stopped was an objective statement substantiated by evidence. Ms Phillips complained that it was inappropriate for theBeacon to uncritically and unquestioningly portray it as a dire warning;
  • Within the article it inaccurately states that Dr de Wet said there was no credible evidence that fluoridation caused significant dental health improvements;
  • Dr de Wet’s role is stated inaccurately as BoP DHB “adviser” when is role is Medical Officer of Health;
  • The second article mentions the Ministry of Health several times; however, no comment was obtained from the Ministry to balance or verify the claims made which were related to the ministry;
  • Both published articles represented only one viewpoint on water fluoridation.A press release from Making Sense of Fluoride was available, however, it was not included or mentioned in the article to provide balance;
  • BoP DHB has a recognised role in promoting health and water fluoridation.It was in the public’s interest to seek comment from the DHB.

Ms Phillips informed the Press Council that her complaints were conveyed to the editor of theWhakatane Beacon with unsatisfactory responses received.

The Response

Geoff Mercer, editor of Whakatane Beacon responded to Ms Phillip’s complaint. With regard to the dire warning aspect of the complaint, Mr Mercer acknowledged that it was Stan Litras’s interpretation of a comment Dr de Wet made in a RNZ interview.It was unfortunate that the substance of the RNZ interview was not reported in the article as its inclusion would have provided context.

Mr Mercer acknowledged that Stan Litras proactively contacted Whakatane Beacon alerting the paper to the group’s press release.At the time of Mr Litras’ contact, the newspaper deemed the subject matter newsworthy and followed through with an article.Mr Mercer makes clear the newspaper has sought to take a neutral view on the matter and that the paper “slipped up” in [mis]reporting Dr de Wet’s views. Moreover the neutral stance is confirmed through the paper not writing an editorial on the matter until after the local authority had dealt with the issue.(However, its first editorial on the matter was published on 9 March 2016.)

Mr Mercer acknowledged the inaccurate description of Dr de Wet’s title. It had crept into the article because Stan Litras used the inaccurate title.However, a number of articles quoting Dr de Wet had previously been published with the error having never been pointed out.

Mr Mercer argues that the issue of fluoridation is a matter in which sides are entrenched and also the arguments are well known in Whakatane.In these instances, achieving balance or complying with this objective is a “futile exercise”.On this occasion, the two articles focussed on the recent decision to cease fluoridation and the articles therefore reflected that.

The editor agrees that the reported statement that Dr de Wet had said there was no credible evidence that fluoridation caused significant dental health improvements misrepresented his views and was an error. However, Dr de Wet did not report the mis-reporting of his comments until four weeks after the article was published.The paper offered the opportunity for Dr de Wet to publish something to deal with any lingering impression the article may have caused. Dr de Wet did not take up that offer. This offer still stands.

The Decision

Water fluoridation is a sensitive matter for some communities across New Zealand. Whakatane is certainly not immune from this sensitivity.

It is positive that the editor acknowledges they did not provide detail of Dr de Wet’s “dire” comments in the first article.The Council understands that Dr de Wet’s RNZ interview was for all intents and purposes one in which arguments for fluoridation were made and substantiated by evidence.By not providing the RNZ context, the reader is left with the impression that a dire warning was provided by the DHB via Dr de Wet. The Council agrees with Ms Phillips in that the headline and introduction to the story is therefore not accurate and complaint is upheld on this point.

The Litras piece was critical of the evidence used by Dr de Wet to support his argument for fluoridation.The article mentions Dr de Wet four times, and yet the newspaper did not put the criticism and allegations to Dr de Wet.This is a simple failure of basic journalistic principles.

While the Council might agree that every viewpoint cannot be covered in every article when an issue is controversial and long-running, in this case, where a commentator is criticizing another person’s use of statistics, balance and fairness require that the party should be given the opportunity to respond to the criticism. The balance in this case is not about the central issue between competing views on the merits of fluoridation of water supplies. Rather the balance that is required in this case is the obligation of a publication to allow an individual to comment if mentioned or quoted indirectly in an article.

This aspect of the complaint is upheld.

The misrepresentation of Dr de Wet’s view on fluoridation in one sentence was an unfortunate error, but the Press Council accepts that had this been pointed out at an early stage it would have been corrected.

In relation to the second article claims were made about the figures the Ministry of Health used to support its argument for fluoridation. The claims were not put to the Ministry.The Press Council has no complaint from the Ministry before it and so puts this matter to one side, aside from commenting that again this was not best journalistic practice.

Importantly both published articles were effectively press releases from interest groups with a particular point of view. As the Council has had cause to comment in two recently upheld complaints (Cases 2478 and 2483) running a press release, without seeking comment from any other party, does not make for a balanced piece of journalism. There are significant dangers in simply regurgitating a Press Release and it does not accord with best journalistic practice unless it is clearly spelt out as a Press Release.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Mark Stevens, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.