Case Number: 899

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2002

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of

The complainant laid a complaint with The New Zealand Herald concerning an article published in the edition of the paper on 6 May 2002. The article was headlined “Natural remedies linked to dangerous side-effects”. There was a sub-heading “Children could be at particular risk, a hospital study shows.” The Council did not uphold the complaint.

The article was sourced at its conclusion as one from the AAP that is the news agency of Australia.

The article itself purported to publish extracts of a study by a Melbourne children’s hospital that linked the use of herbal remedies and alternative medicines to harmful side-effects in children. Typical of the tenor of the article is the following quote as recorded in the article. “The side-effects range from skin discoloration to malnutrition, says Dr. Alissa Lim of the Royal Children’s Hospital. She says the use of complementary and alternative medicine is becoming increasingly common among parents who believe they are acting in their children’s best interests by giving them ‘natural’ remedies.”

The material resulted from a 12-month study using information gathered by the Australian Paediatric Surveillance Unit that confirmed many of the treatments are far from harmless; so the article stated. There can be no doubt but that the article was over-all critical of the uncontrolled use of alternative natural remedies. The second to last paragraph in the article stated as follows: “The important message is that like conventional medication, complementary medicine can have adverse effects.”

The complaint began with Mr Reardon writing a strongly worded and critical letter of complaint to the editor of the newspaper seemingly about the accuracy of the article and he challenged its conclusions. The letter was not published. Mr Reardon then sent the letter again to the newspaper as a letter of formal complaint. Later he brought the complaint to the Press Council

The general complaint of Mr Reardon seems to be that the article was inaccurate in many of the statements made about alternative medicines and/or did not contain balancing material about the frequent failure of traditional medicine. In particular he took exception to the statement that during the course of the study 16 adverse events were reported when the article gave no indication how many children had been included in the survey. He saw this as fear-mongering

The response of the editor to the complaint was that he stood by the article as accurate. It was in the public interest to publish criticisms of alternative medicine, especially given the professional authorities contained in the article of research, and the findings by responsible bodies justified that course. If there was a complaint about non-publication of the original letter he said it was within the editor’s discretion whether to publish any letter, or not, and that has been confirmed by Council’s decisions on many occasions.

The Council’s view is that the article did not contravene accuracy and balance principles and was a worthwhile contribution to the debate on alternative medicines. There were contained in the article balancing comments on the need for those families who choose to use alternative medicine for their children to let their doctors know. Also there is the second to last paragraph already quoted above. The newspaper was able to decline to publish a letter to the editor if it chose that course.

The complaint is not upheld.