SANITARIUM HEALTH AND WELLBEING AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD

Case Number: 2649

Council Meeting: JANUARY 2018

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Headlines and Captions

Overview

1. Sanitarium Health and Wellbeing complains that article published online by theNew Zealand Herald on December 13, 2017 breached Principles 1, Accuracy Fairness and Balance, and 6, Headlines and Captions.

Background

2. An article headlined “Spoonful of Weet-bix killed teen in hospital” published online by theNew Zealand Herald on December 13, covered the opening of an inquest into the death of an Australian teenager who suffered a fatal anaphylactic reaction while eating breakfast in Frankston Hospital, Victoria, in October 2015.

3. The inquest was investigating the hospital’s food-handling protocols for patients with food allergies, and how the boy, Louis Tate, 13, was managed after he suffered a reaction.

4. The teen had been admitted to hospital after an asthma attack the night before, and despite his mother warning nursing staff on his admission form that he suffered from asthma, severe food allergies and anaphylaxis, these allergies were not noted on a kitchen whiteboard as per hospital protocol.

5. In the morning, the boy had asked for three Weet-bix with soy milk for breakfast, but complained of tingling in his mouth after eating only a spoonful. Nursing staff called doctors in when the boy complained of a reaction. Charge nurse Helen Hutchins said she knew Louis suffered from allergies, but was not aware that he suffered from anaphylaxis.

6. She said it had been a “failure of the system” that the boy’s allergies had not been noted on the whiteboard.

7. The article quoted his father as saying, “He was in hospital, in a place he should have been safe. Yet despite us providing clear and concise communications about his food allergies, he died.”

The Complaint

8. Jaclyn Dinnan from Sanitarium said the full details of why the boy died are not yet clear, but the original headline made it appear that the Weet-bix had killed the teen.

9. She said Sanitarium had no problem with the report of the inquest into the hospital’s failure to follow correct processes concerning patients with allergies, but the headline was highly damaging to Sanitarium and its reputation, and was “reckless” reporting of a tragedy.

10. She said Sanitarium contacted the NZ Herald at 1pm on the day of the online publication, and the headline was changed by 1.10pm to “Hospital breakfast kills teen”.

11. A subsequent letter to the Herald sent by Sanitarium’s solicitors protested “in the strongest terms possible” the sensationalist and misleading nature of the headline. Had theHerald investigated the matter before publication, they would have found that Weet-bix were a safe option for the teenager, and recommended by his mother. A full investigation into the actual cereal eaten by the teenager had established that it was entirely safe to eat.

12. Ms Dinnan said the Herald had not responded to the solicitor’s letter.

13. Responding to the editor of the Herald, Ms Dinnan noted that Mr Alley had highlighted that the inquest was yet to be completed and that no formal findings have yet been made by the coroner, yet theHerald had nevertheless used the “Spoonful of Weet-bix” headline.

14. She believed the headline had clearly inferred that Weet-Bix was the cause of the death. Weet-bix was not a generic breakfast name; it is the name of the Sanitarium product.

She said on reading the article it may have become clear to readers that the milk was the likely culprit, but by that time the damage was done.

The Response

15. New Zealand Herald senior newsroom editor Oskar Alley said the article covered the first day of the coroner’s inquest into the death of the teenager, and that no formal findings as to cause of death had yet been made.

16. He said that despite Sanitarium believing their product was not responsible for his death, this had yet to be confirmed by the coroner; however he acknowledged that Weet-bix was eaten regularly by the teenager and was deemed to be a safe option by his mother.

17. Mr Alley submitted there was no breach of Principle 1; Sanitarium had stated that they had no issue with the content of the article.

With regard to Principle 6, the editor stated that a “key element” of the article was that the contents of the breakfast was the likely trigger for anaphylaxis. He said as the cereal is commonly consumed with milk, it was unnecessary for the headline to state: “Spoonful of Weet-bix and milk killed teen”.

18. The inquest was yet to determine whether the teen was served soy milk, contaminated soy milk, or another type of milk. Anyone reading the headline in conjunction with the article would believe that the inquest evidence strongly points to the milk in the cereal as the likely culprit, he said.

19. He denied that the headline was reckless or designed to smear Weet-bix or imply that the wheat biscuit was the culprit.

20. The headline had been changed shortly after Sanitarium had called to raise concerns. This decision to change the headline was made as a courtesy, he said, and did not imply that the original headline was wrong or unfair.

The Decision

21. The New Zealand Herald report of an inquest into the death of Australian teenager who died in 2015 of an anaphylactic reaction while in hospital, despite his mother warning hospital staff that he suffered from food allergies including anaphylaxis, makes grim reading. That a child lost his life in a place he should have been safe, simply because of a failure of the hospital staff to observe protocol around patients with food allergies, is a shocking and cautionary tale.

22. Although the story concerned an Australian hospital and its management of an Australian patient, there is no doubt it was relevant here as well, and the connection to the iconic New Zealand brand of breakfast cereal was presumably the reason for theNew Zealand Herald headline, “Spoonful of Weet-bix killed teen in hospital”.

23. Yet the story itself quoted the boy’s mother as saying they did not know what caused the food reaction. This statement should have rung alarm bells with theNZ Herald editorial staff: a routine fact-checking exercise would have ascertained that no formal cause of death has yet been established by the coroner and therefore a headline suggesting Weet-bix had been responsible was alarmist and factually incorrect.

24. The Herald’s immediate response to a complaint from Sanitarium is commendable but the Press Council believes that a mistake of such magnitude could not be saved by the prompt action of the publication; the story was online for several hours, when it would have been seen by thousands of readers. The headline was designed to grab attention (that is what headlines do), and in this case a well-known cereal brand was named as a killer.

25. As has been noted in previous Press Council decisions relating to Principle 6, headlines must be read in conjunction with the story they precede for true context. But despite the editor’s argument that the headline meant thebreakfast the boy ate was responsible for his death, and that the story pointed to themilk served with the cereal as the culprit, the Weet-bix product was named, when there was not a shred of proof that it had caused the reaction.

26. In this case, The Press Council agrees with Sanitarium’s view that damage was done by the original headline, which was careless and sensationalist.

Decision

27. Sanitarium stated that it had no problem with the content of the article. The complaint under Principle 1 is thereforenot upheld.

28. The complaint is upheld on Principle 6.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

John Roughan took no part in the consideration of this complaint.