When balance goes out the window

A few weeks ago, for the first time ever, I took a complaint to the Press Council against a newspaper.

Times-Age on homeopathy
Times-Age on homeopathy

I’ve been the subject of a Press Council complaint in the past, one that wasn’t upheld. I know it is time consuming and stressful responding to a complaint, so I didn’t make my own complaint lightly.

But I was so dismayed by the lack of balance, accuracy and fairness in the Wairarapa Times-Age‘s report on homeopathy and the editor’s unwillingness to discuss it constructively, that I felt I had no choice but to complain.

The decision on that complaint is in – my complaint was not upheld.

A very similar complaint from fellow blogger Mark Hanna was not upheld either. Mark has an excellent summary of the entire story here. Sciblogger Grant Jacobs also has some commentary here.

I’m not going to pick through the finer details in this post.

I fully accept the Press Council’s ruling and thank it for considering it.

But I am nevertheless concerned by it.

The 1st principle of the Press Council looks to uphold the core values of journalism – accuracy, fairness and balance:

1. Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission. In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view.

But there’s an important exception to the above:

Exceptions may apply for long-running issues where every side of an issue or argument cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion and in reportage of proceedings where balance is to be judged on a number of stories, rather than a single report.

That exception to the principle resulted in our complaint being thrown out.

Here we had a really bad piece of journalism which the Press Council admitted was unbalanced and deficient. Several astonishing claims about the efficacy of homeopathy made by practitioners of homeopathy and family members of people treated with it, went totally unchallenged. The reporter acknowledged she’d tried to obtain balancing comment but that no one had gotten back to her by deadline.

The impression the reader is left with is that homeopathy has real potential as an effective treatment against serious diseases like cancer. The massive problem is that there is no scientific basis for the efficacy of homeopathy. People who use it to treat serious diseases and conditions offer false hope to people. This is potentially a threat to public health, so you’d think a paper looking after the interests of its readers would give pause before publishing it.

But I went through the Wairarapa Times Age archive and discovered that every story I could find back to 2010 were similarly unbalanced and gave uncritical coverage to homeopathy and its practitioners. The editor wasn’t able to produce any stories to the contrary. So the newspaper has effectively been giving homeopaths a free ride for years to make their unfounded claims. No one has ever thought to balance out those claims with some views from actual experts who know how shonky homeopathy is.

But here’s the rub – the paper doesn’t have to provide any balance because homeopathy and its lack of credibility has been discussed extensively elsewhere in the media.

The paper effectively doesn’t ever have to provide balance as long as say, TVNZ, the New York Times and Google News features decent science-based coverage debunking homeopathic treatments. As the Press Council pointed out:

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.

So where does that leave us? Take ongoing, contentious stories – climate change, child poverty, GST on web purchases – literally whatever you like. The ruling suggests that you can repeatedly publish unbalanced reports on any issue, as long as some other, maybe more responsible media outlets, do their job properly and deliver balanced journalism.

So balance can be the exception, not the rule. Unless its an obscure or new issue that hasn’t been widely discussed somewhere else in the media, you can get away with consistently only ever telling one side of the story, as the Wairarapa Times-Age has done for years when it comes to homeopathy.

So there it is.  I lecture at journalism schools all over the country. What am I going to say the next time I stand up in front of a group of aspiring young journos?: “Don’t worry about balance or accuracy or fairness, as long as you can Google some coverage of the issue somewhere else out there on the internet that covers the contrary view, you are home free!”

No. Because balance is still actually really important and most outlets get that.

The exception makes sense when you can at least show sometime in the past you attempted to provide some balance on an issue. But its interpretation in this case seems to me to suggest that a publication can abdicate its responsibility to provide fair and balanced journalism to its readers again and again as long as other publications do their job.

In a week when much angst has been voiced over the state of the media, precipitated by the prospect of Campbell Live going off air, that’s certainly something to give me pause.

30 Comments

  1. Peter Griffin

    The good thing out of the whole experience is that the reporter has described it as a learning experience and will strive to do better next time.

  2. williamray

    Eurgh, spelling mistake in my very first sentence… This is what happens when you get too used to subeditors.

  3. williamray

    Former science reporter weighing in:

    I’m really worried about the precendent this decision sets.

    As Peter has pointed out the Council isn’t just saying there doesn’t have to be balance within an article (which is fine by me) but there doesn’t have to be balance within an entire newspaper!

    I’m sure most members of the panel are widely read news junkies but there are plenty of people out there who only get their news from one source. It’s not good enough for a paper to just say “want balance? look somewhere else”.

    That said I can see how they came to this decision. Balance is probably the toughest standard of journalism to rule on and there are plenty of journos out there who would say as long as an article is fair and accurate (which this article is) then balance doesn’t need to come into it.

    I think the council is anxious to defend the exclusionary principal because claims of bias is the easiest stick for politicians and others to use to beat reporters and media-outlets they don’t like.

  4. Grant Jacobs

    Gold –

    “@Grant, if you want to continue chatting with him you may need to start spoon feeding.”

    I didn’t point out my post to introduce it to this discussion as such, really, but more just to point out there’s more on the topic on sciblogs if people want to read it. The discussion here really should be about Peter‘s post. Anyway, as a practical matter there are other things I think I’d be better spend my time tackling.

  5. Gold

    I never said you did. You couched your statements suitably to imply without actually claiming anything. That, in my mind, is a little disingenuous.

  6. stephenthorpe

    Hey, what’s with the straw man! I didn’t say that anyone said that the topic should not be published! The topic isn’t the issue! The issue is in the freedom to report topics in a manner that might not please some readers (like yourself). I agree that there is a line beyond which reporting does become irresponsible and potentially dangerous to the point that action may need to be taken, but, on the other hand, there must be freedom to express points of view/opinions which others may vehemently disagree with. After all, the North Koreans (and even the Chinese) seem to have their own view on what counts as irresponsible reporting, but I don’t think we want to agree with them!

  7. Gold

    “If they are (still) claiming to maintain a high standard of journalism (though this is vague, their standard is still higher than tabloids)”

    This decision, in my opinion, provides evidence that the Press Council has lowered their standards to that of “tabloids”. Provided someone, somewhere online is talking about something you can print anything you like with no consideration for the standards laid out by the Press Council.

    “However, it does seem a bit like you guys are just trying to silence dissenting views (i.e. views that don’t conform to your own ideas of what should or should not get reported), which is on equally potentially “dodgy ground”.”

    Can you find anyone here that has argued that the topic of the article *should not* have been published?

    If not, your statement is spurious and worthy of a troll.

  8. stephenthorpe

    Really, the only issue, as I see it, is whether a body like the Press Council is claiming to be something that they are not. If they are (still) claiming to maintain a high standard of journalism (though this is vague, their standard is still higher than tabloids), then you may have grounds for objection, but I don’t know. However, it does seem a bit like you guys are just trying to silence dissenting views (i.e. views that don’t conform to your own ideas of what should or should not get reported), which is on equally potentially “dodgy ground”.

  9. Gold

    “The public may not have a legal right to high quality reporting, but I’m still disappointed to find that the mainstream media aren’t held to the same high standards that I think the should be (and had good reason prior to this ruling to believe that they were).”

    I think that last bracketed bit is the clincher here. It’s a common trope to say that you don’t believe everything you read in the media but to have the Press Council pretty much agree with it and say they’re not going to do anything about it that’s a bit of a kick in the face to the public at large.

  10. Mark Hanna

    @stephenthorpe: The Press Council is not a statutory authority, they have nothing to do with the law. They’re an industry self-regulatory body set up with the intention of maintaining high standards of journalism, in adherence with their principles, among their members. Members of the Press Council include the Newspaper Publishers’ Association and the Magazine Publishers’ Association, for example.

    The question isn’t whether there should be a legal obligation for journalists to write balanced articles, but whether an industry self-regulatory body should require it. Now that they seem to have decided that they shouldn’t, it is certainly relevant to question the reliability of the media, but I’m sure you’d agree that it would be in the public’s interest for mainstream media to provide accurate, fair, and balanced reporting even on controversial issues.

    Here at Sciblogs, the bloggers have a code of ethics that includes such principles as “I will tell the truth”, “I will write deliberately and with accuracy”, and “I will disclose conflicts of interest”. I think we are stronger for being held to such principles, and in the same light I think the mainstream print media should also adhere to principles like those on the Press Council’s websites.

    The public may not have a legal right to high quality reporting, but I’m still disappointed to find that the mainstream media aren’t held to the same high standards that I think the should be (and had good reason prior to this ruling to believe that they were).

  11. stephenthorpe

    True, but we can do no more than the law already tries to do, i.e. grown adults can do whatever they like and suffer the consequences, but there are legal obligations for parents to seek appropriate healthcare options for sick children.

  12. ross

    @Stephenthope:

    Music is not a life and death issue. Badly informed folktales on the benefits of homeopathy are.

  13. stephenthorpe

    OK, by “balanced view”, I did not mean to imply 1:1 balance. Therefore, Grant’s second post is a red herring. Clearly, what you guys want is for “views with little or no merit” to get little or no attention by the popular media. But it aint gonna happen. You could say the same thing about art (e.g. music), i.e. music with little or no merit should get little or no airplay. The reality is that such music is often exteremly popular, and “merit” is subjective anyway. You might try to argue that scientific merit is objective, but I don’t buy that! For the example of climate change, the science itself may be more or less objective, but the interpretation of the results is not. A “consensus” among scientists does not make anything more objective, because “consensus” is a political/sociological concept, sensitive to things like funding concerns. The reality is that people will offer crap opinions as if they had some sort of merit. Caveat emptor…

  14. Gold

    Having just gone and read Grants second linked post (read the first before starting into the comments here) it is a short post that covers Grants position reasonable well.

    The post isn’t that long. Personally I think @stephenthorpe is the unreasonable one here. @Grant, if you want to continue chatting with him you may need to start spoon feeding.

  15. stephenthorpe

    I’m not being combative. You are being evasive. Try to comment on the issue in hand in a clear and concise manner, without simply referring to earlier posts with wider scope.

  16. Grant Jacobs

    Stephen

    Try a less combative tone? I never asked you to “trawl through earlier posts” – both my recent post and my earlier on one critical analysis are directly linked above.

  17. stephenthorpe

    Grant, I think you need to try to present your points in a clearer and more concise way! I’m not going to trawl through earlier posts by you in the hope of finding what you are talking about here.

    The issue here is simple: Are there any real grounds for complaint against media for presenting “unbalanced view points” on topics? Do they have a duty to present either (1) only individually balanced articles (?=”critical analysis”); or (2) articles that are collectively balanced? My initial reaction is no to both (1) and (2). Anybody who relies on the popular media for factual matters is a fool…

  18. Grant Jacobs

    My comment has crossed. I didn’t write about ‘balanced views’ as you say I have! Nor did I suggest something would lead to ‘the truth’ – no offense but these are different to the point of what I’ve written, off on a tangent as it were.

  19. Grant Jacobs

    To add to my previous comment, I wrote a bit about critical analysis when I first started blogging here: https://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2009/10/23/science-journalism—critical-analysis-not-debate/ – perhaps relevant here?

    Stephen, quickly:

    “The critical ones don’t have to be in the same venue.” You might be used a different meaning for ‘critical’ – I wrote in the sense of ‘analysis’.

    ”The onus is on the reader to “shop around” for different opinions.” – read my take, I address this. (Linked earlier.)

  20. stephenthorpe

    Grant, I’m saying that the reality is different to the ideal. We get balance through different opinions, not through individual “balanced views”, which are probably idealist nonsense anyway, since nobody who is objective on an issue has any motivation to write about it. It is somewhat like democracy: the result is determined by votes, not by a single person trying to be objective. Of course, neither option necessarily leads to “the truth” …

  21. stephenthorpe

    The critical ones don’t have to be in the same venue. The onus is on the reader to “shop around” for different opinions.

  22. Peter Griffin

    @stephenthorpe if I’d found some stories in the archive that were critical of homeopathy I probably wouldn’t have complained. The exception in that case would have made sense. But I couldn’t find any, not one.

  23. stephenthorpe

    It might be more realistic to consider balance not withing single articles, but as arising from separate articles both for and against. This is the way things seem to work in reality. Individual articles are often highly unbalanced, but for every one of these, you can find another article equally unbalanced in the opposite direction. The net effect is to cancel out!

  24. Gold

    I consider this to be a failing on the part of the Press Council. Once a ruling like this has been made what are the next steps? Is there any right of appeal? A way of challenging the Press Council?

    The precedent this sets is really important and the consequences need to be addressed.

  25. diaz

    Can’t quite believe that, if it was dealing with general debate on the issue maybe complete balance isn’t required, but this is what you’d call a ‘puff’ or even a promo piece in which the main body of the article relied solely on the unverified claims of a homeopath and naturopath and anecdotal claims. Those claims do require checking for accuracy and balancing information that means the journalist failed there as the press council rules, in addition to accuracy also say “A clear distinction should be drawn between factual information and comment or opinion.” Claiming such things as the homeopath did like “significantly extending life expectancy” should have been clearly marked as opinion instead of being allowed to stand as it was, and balancing information put in there to show that this can’t be regarded as in any way factual. It wouldn’t have been hard given the journalist talked to them to ask for some sort of proof.

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