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