JULIE FOGARTY AGAINST NORTH & SOUTH

Case Number: 2660

Council Meeting: MAY 2018

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: North & South

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. Julie Fogarty complains about an article published by North & South in its February 2018 issue.She is of the view that the article breaches Media Council Principle 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance).

2. The Media Council does not uphold the complaint.

Background

3. On February 18, 2018, North & South published a substantial article entitled “Breastfeeding: the Battleground”. The general tenor of the article was that while “breast milk is undoubtedly the best food for babies”, medical and other professionals in New Zealand have gone too far in demonising formula feeding and failing to recognise cases where an alternative to breastfeeding is indicated, to the extent of bullying women into attempting to breastfeed in circumstances where it is likely to be detrimental to the health of both mother and child. The article included stories about the experience of one woman who had successfully breastfed her children for an extended period and of three who had encountered difficulties in breastfeeding.

The Complaint

4. Ms Fogarty complains that the article has inaccuracies, imbalances and omissions that she believes may have an undue negative effect on the health of mothers and babies in New Zealand. It undermines a mother’s information rights about the advantages of breastfeeding.

5. She has supplied an extensive critique of the North & South article and of the editor’s response to her complaint with much supporting evidence. It is not practical to summarise her submissions in their entirety, but two major points made in her original complaint are

  • that there is misleading minimisation of breastfeeding’s health protective properties
  • that the article positions breastfeeding as hazardous, without balancing with formula-feeding’s relevant hazards, or holding other issues and stakeholders to account.

6. She says that the article gives a narrow, imbalanced view of breastfeeding challenges and fails to examine

  • people undermining a mother’s right to exclusively feed her newborn.
  • the baby formula industry’s unethical behaviour
  • the government’s failure to implement UN level maternity protections
  • broader societal issues such as general healthcare inadequacies.

It is also uncritical in its presentation of controversial and apparently unregulated advice sources while the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative is “put through the wringer”.

7. In analysing the North & South response to her complaint, Ms Fogarty supplied a lengthy rebuttal of the individual points. She also supplied a final comment on theNorth & South report to the Media Council in which she focussed on perceived instances of imbalance in the article and especially:

  • apart from the section covering duration of breastfeeding “every other personal saga. . . . became a case against breast-feeding advocacy”.
  • the author of the article highlighted the standing and qualifications of those mentioned as criticising breastfeeding advocacy
  • the standing of the “Fed is Best” Foundation is questionable.
  • the author obscured the facts in three specific instances
  • prominence was given to certain research without mentioning its limitations and other research was ignored, particularly research showing that breastfeeding reduces the risk of SIDS.

The Response

8. Virginia Larson, editor of North & South, responded in detail to Ms Fogarty with a comprehensive analysis of the complaint. In general, she did not accept that the article was inaccurate, unfair or unbalanced and submitted that all the material in the article was supported by reliable evidence.

9. One of the main points of the North & South response was that “This is a long-standing issue that has been covered before and, even with a generous word count, an article can’t be expected to go over every single aspect of the issue; it’s a feature, not a book.”

10. On the question of balance, Ms Larson said that two people from the NZ Breastfeeding Alliance had been interviewed and space had been allocated to their views. Information also came from the Ministry of Health, Plunket and Change for our Children. She cited several responses to the article from individuals and organisations, all generally making the point that “suppressing access to information and respectful debate is always counterproductive”.

11. Ms Larson then went through the allegations of inaccuracy and explained theNorth & South view on each of them.She did not accept that there were any inaccuracies.

12. In a further response. Ms Larson supplied copies of letters to the editor, written after publication of the article, which expressed varying views and which she believes support her contention that the article was balanced and informative.

The Decision

  • 13. As a preliminary, it needs to be stated that the Media Council cannot and does not assess medical or other specialist evidence for its validity. It will consider whether, where medical evidence is reported, it is reported accurately, and whether, in areas where there is controversy, adequate voice is given to opposing expert views, but it does not assess the relative weight to be given to those views. In this case it was clearly impossible forNorth & South to publish the underlying evidence in full and there was necessarily some selection.The Media Council is satisfied that in selectively reporting the findings of medical researchers and in the use of statistics there was no omission of directly relevant material or undue emphasis on questionable data. Some of the findings and statistics are open to different interpretations, but that does not mean they are invalid or inaccurate.
  • 14. It also needs to be said that articles published in the media, even “in-depth” articles such as the one in question in this complaint, cannot be held to the same standards as scientific research papers. While media articles must be accurate, fair and balanced, it is neither practical nor desirable that they include the same level of detail as scientific papers or that they include the same level of evidence and/or authority for the statements made in them. To that extent, the Media Council accepts Ms Larson’s submission that “it’s a feature, not a book.” Clearly the article does not include all relevant information on the advantages and disadvantages of breastfeeding and formula feeding, but that does necessarily not make the article unbalanced.
  • 15. In addition, it is true to say that in recent years there have been many articles in the general media on breastfeeding and it is reasonable to assume that readers of the article are familiar with the positions taken by the authorities and their critics. While in this case the Media Council finds no lack of balance we do consider that it is part of the discussion of a long-running issue in which not every angle needs to be covered in every article
  • 16. The Media Council is of the view that the complainant, understandably in view of her interests, has misread the main point of the article. It is clear that the underlying premise is that breastfeeding is the best option for mothers and babies.It is not an article that promotes formula feeding in place of breastfeeding, nor does it focus on the benefits of breastfeeding versus the risks and disadvantages of formula feeding. What it does set out to do is to highlight the experiences of women who had problems (in some cases severe and unusual medical problems) after the birth of their babies, who wanted to explore all options, including formula feeding, for addressing those problems and who felt disturbed and humiliated by the response of some breast-feeding advocates. It also makes the point that while there is plenty of information available about breastfeeding, there is variable and often insufficient informed practical support for those experiencing problems.A variety of views was sought and they were given reasonably equivalent space on the article. There is no lack of balance.
  • 17. Ms Fogarty’s complaint of inaccuracy has been very carefully considered, along with Ms Larson’s response. There are many instances of differing interpretations of the sources cited in the article, but the Media Council has been unable to find any factual inaccuracies in the article.
  • 18. The complaint is not upheld.

Decision

Media Council members considering the complaint were Chris Darlow, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay, Tim Watkin, Tracy Watkins

Jenny Farrell took no part in the consideration of this complaint.