BARBARA SUMNER BURSTYN AND RON LAW AGAINST HAWKE'S BAY TODAY

Case Number: 1019

Council Meeting: JUNE 2005

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Hawkes Bay Today

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Accuracy

Barbara Sumner Burstyn and Ron Law complained about an editorial in Hawke's Bay Today headed "Foolish not to vaccinate", and published on April 18, 2005.

The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

The editorial opened with the statement, "As the meningococcal-B vaccination campaign is rolled out through the region, the thoughts of the anti- vaccination lobby have begun to appear in the letters to the editor column once again."

The editorial referred to the "anti-immunisation lobby" having a right to their opinions, but quoted statistics concerning meningococcal disease, the epidemic in New Zealand and deaths since 1991. The editorial concluded, "The sooner all the children in the region, whose parents consent, are vaccinated, the safer all of us will be."

The complainants had first objected to the editor that "this editorial contained a number of factually incorrect statements and falsely characterised all attempt at public discourse on this vaccine as anti-immunisation."

The complainants asserted that the main lobby to ensure that the ministry of health's full documentation on the MeNZB(tm) vaccine was made publicly available was not connected to any anti-immunisation organisation, but consisted primarily of the complainants. "We are not anti-immunisation and are not affiliated with any anti-immunisation group. Our motives are grounded in the belief that the public has a right to know about the bad science and policy that surrounds this particular medicine."

To the Press Council, the complainants reiterated their objection to the statements in the editorial. "It is essential, for parents attempting to gather information to make an informed choice, that the media in New Zealand remain neutral. This requires at least a modicum of recognition that those with a vested interest and the concomitant budget will, of necessity, employ spin-doctors and that such information could be tainted. In order for parents to achieve [informed consent] we seek a published retraction of the false statements made in the editorial and the publication of a more balanced view of this subject."

The editor initially offered the complainants a chance to have their response to the editorial published in a letter to the editor, which the complainants rejected as inadequate. To the Press Council, the editor responded that the editorial was fair opinion, and that the newspaper was willing to publish unfavourable reaction to its opinions as letters, not as a lengthy retraction. He said the newspaper was not in the habit of "publicly recanting to appease one side in an issue in which there are strong, polarised views."

The editorial did include an error referring to a figure of "about 200 deaths a year" which was then self-corrected further down the editorial which stated, since 1991 220 people have died. The editor could have acknowledged this inconsistency.

Press clippings the editor submitted with his response included a feature story "Vaccination - a shot in the dark?" published in Hawke's Bay Today on March 21, less than a month before the editorial. In this feature, the complainants' views were quoted at some length. Run in association with the feature were a story about a woman who gave reasons for not having her two primary school-age children vaccinated, and another about a mother who urged vaccination after her 19-year-old son contracted meningococcal disease and almost died.

Also quoted in the feature were Ministry of Health statistics about the disease and deaths that were re-used in the editorial. The editor quoted from an email from one of the complainants that commended the health reporter who wrote the feature story. The editor also included other stories from the newspaper that covered the debate about immunisation and the meningococcal vaccine.

The Press Council receives complaints from time to time about newspaper stories on controversial major social issues of the day such as immunisation or climate change. Even statistics and factual matters can be open to debate which suggests that the subject matter may not be as clear-cut as either side may declare it to be. The facts in the editorial which are disputed by the complainants can be demonstrated to have been sourced from medical authorities. That they are a matter of debate does not prevent the newspaper from using them.

The combination of advocacy by those challenging authorities in a technical subject along with the publication of their views, presents the news media with a dilemma. Those not scientifically qualified in the topic under debate may still claim rights to air their views on an equal footing, as a matter of balance. The press in general may dispute that claim, but not have the expertise in its own ranks to assess the merits of the claim, nor the desire to assert that in some stories there may be no case to answer.

It is not for the Council to determine the rights or wrongs of one side or the other where expert opinion is in direct conflict. In the case of the immunisation debate, both sides cite well-qualified medical authorities with strong opinions and interpretations of various factual matters, and sometimes the views expressed are diametrically opposed.

The Press Council can comment only on the ethics of the journalistic coverage. Here Hawke's Bay Today has expressed the newspaper's own opinion, as it is entitled to, in the most appropriate place, the newspaper's editorial column. The newspaper showed that it had already aired the views of parties to the debate before deciding to declare its own point of view, and this simply reinforces the proper nature of its behaviour.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Jeffries (Chairman), Suzanne Carty, Aroha Puata, Ruth Buddicom, Alan Samson, Murray Williams, Denis McLean, Keith Lees, Terry Snow and John Gardner.