Case Number: 3444

Decision: No Grounds to Proceed

Publication: Sunday-Star Times

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance

Ruling Categories: Bias
Conspiracy Theories
General Elections

The Sunday Star-Times published an article on 16 July, 2023 headlined Can Winston Peters ride a “freedom” wave to Parliament?

The article reported extensively on Winston Peters’ campaign and noted how his comments on “unusual” post-Covid death rates and related comments about vaccine side effects had been picked up and spread on-line and by Reality Check Radio, a media outlet set up by founders of Voices for Freedom.

This was followed by several paragraphs debunking claims that the vaccine was causing large numbers of unacknowledged deaths. It reported 2022 death statistics, explained the significant factors in the 10 percent rise that year and noted there was no statistically significant increased death rates amongst younger people, which would have been expected if vaccines were responsible. It reported medical experts saying the benefits of vaccination far outweighed the rare risk of side effects and reported comment from a virologist who warned, “Be very sceptical of people who tell you they are not safe."

The article also reported on how Mr Peters’ views on the danger posed by Covid-19 had changed over three years and recorded comment that he was now pandering to people who hold conspiracy views.

Angela Brown said she was concerned about some statistics quoted in the article and asked for a correction or expansion. She noted that the 2400 deaths attributed to Covid did not account for all the excess deaths in 2022 and that this needed to be investigated. The explanation that the increased numbers were also was down to an aging population made no sense.

Ms Brown also complained other statements about the data were not attributed. She said it was irresponsible to assign explanations to statistical and scientific phenomena “off the top of your head without supporting evidence.”

She also took issue with comments made by the virologist reported in the story and asked why other experts who disagreed with him were not quoted. 

“Your underlying assumption that everything the freedom movement understands is a conspiracy theory, to which you will give no credence, merely sends people further away from your newspaper and traditional media in general. There is so much data and so many studies coming out overseas which provide new information and yet none of it is reported in the media here for discussion.”

In response Stuff said its reporting on 2022 death rate statistics was entirely based on NZ Stats data, which was reported in an earlier story that was linked to in this article.

This explained that New Zealand saw its first big wave of Covid-19 infections in 2022, which accounted for almost 70 percent of the increase. The same story, reporting more deaths were due to an aging population, attributed the observation to statements by Stats NZ’s population estimates and projections manager.

Stuff also responded to the complaint by saying the virologist quoted in the article was highly respected and qualified to speak on vaccines.

The Media Council notes this was a piece of legitimate reporting which mainly focussed on Mr Peters changing position on Covid-19.

To counter some of Mr Peters’ potentially alarming comments about “unusual” Covid-19 deaths, the journalists included data from official statistics and comment from a reputable source explaining that the benefits of vaccines far outweighed the risks. This provided balance to Mr Peters’ comments and there was no need to go looking for others who argue against the experts quoted. Providing facts to counter claims is common, and good journalistic practice.

While the complainant questioned that information and the conclusion drawn from it, she has not shown that any of it was wrong. 

The Media Council does not see how the article required any correction.

Decision: There were insufficient grounds to proceed.


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