CHRIS BATTEN AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2755

Council Meeting: MARCH 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Misleading

Overview

1. Chris Batten complains against Stuff about an article published on January 10, 2019. He considers there is a breach of Media Council Principle 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance).

2. The Media Council does not uphold the complaint.

Background

3. The article in question is headed How do we know predators kill 25 million birds, chicks and eggs each year? It refers to the difficulty the writer had in establishing the authority for the widely-used figure of 25 million and recounts how it was eventually tracked down to research conducted by a Landcare Research wildlife ecologist, John Innes. The article included Mr Innes’ explanation of his method of calculation and his comments about the accuracy of the calculation, which he described as “rough and quick”, “likely to be roughly accurate” and also “certainly falsely precise”. It also recorded his reservations about the way in which the number had been used. He considered the limited nature of his calculation (several categories of bird were excluded) meant that the figure was likely to be a gross underestimate of the total number of birds killed by predators.

4. The article was accompanied by a video supplied by the Department of Conservation (DOC) describing bird life in a remote valley where pest control work, including the application of 1080, had been undertaken. The video included graphs showing an increase in the numbers of seven species, a decline in two and a stable population of the remaining four. It was said that “overall, native bird numbers have doubled”.

The Complaint

5. Mr Batten complains that the article is inaccurate and falsely represents that Forest and Bird and DOC policies and methods are saving New Zealand’s birds. He says the evidence presented in the video does not support the claim that overall native bird numbers have doubled nor does it support the claim that year on year bird numbers have increased. He is of the view that Stuff’s reporting is one-sided and lacks balanced information.

6. In particular Mr Batten notes that the graphs in the video show that there were years in which all bird species had decreases in numbers, and that the variations in numbers indicate possible poor sampling methods.

7. In further submissions, Mr Batten adds that a number of species that exist or existed in the relevant area are not reported, possibly because they are extinct or near extinct as a result of DOC’s methods, and also that some of the increase may be attributable to the decline in numbers of long-tailed cuckoos

The Response

8. Keith Lynch, Deputy Editor, Stuff responded to the complaint. He said he was satisfied with the reporting, and noted that Mr Batten’s complaint was largely directed at the DOC video. He agreed that the video did not provide specific numbers and said that this was not ideal. However in his view the use of the video was the equivalent of quoting DOC – a standard practice in articles of this nature.

9. In further submissions, Mr Lynch says that the Stuff article was concerned with an exploration of the widely used 25 million figure and did not go into the rights and wrongs of DOC’s policies.It was accurate and fair in exploring the background to the number and its limitations. In addition he mentions the exception to the requirement for balance where long-running issues are involved and every side of an issue or argument cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion.

10. As regards the video, Mr Lynch submitted that as the public body overseeing conservation, DOC’s claims are entitled to be taken at face value. Stuff would have examined them further if they had been the main focus of the story, but they were not. The video and its contents were more like “quoting a DOC official saying bird numbers have increased in one particular valley in a “sidebar” to the main event”. Mr Lynch agrees that the initial title and caption of the video were not as clear as they could have been, and these have been changed. Mr Lynch submits that although Stuff did not “fact-check” the video, it believes that the data clearly show a significant increase in bird numbers and this would correlate with DOC’s assertion that “bird song has doubled over the last 20 years.”

The Decision

11. The Media Council accepts that the controversy over predator control and especially over the use of 1080 is a long-running issue and not one on which every article or report requires balance.It also accepts that the focus of the story in question is on the widely cited number of 25 million native birds killed by predators each year and not on DOC policy or on any particular method of pest control. There is a clear explanation of the method by which the number was calculated, including the description of the deficiencies in the calculation by the researcher who was responsible for it and his reservations about the way the number has been used. Mr Batten does not appear to question any of this material, concentrating on the accompanying video and on what he sees as “the notion that Forest and Bird and DOC policies and methods are saving our birds” In fact the only mention of DOC predator control policy in the article is in the reported question by a journalist about the number of birds “saved through the aerial use of 1080”. That question is not answered or even addressed in the article – it is purely background to the history of the calculation.

12. The Media Council finds no inaccuracy, unfairness or lack of balance in the article.

13. Mr Batten’s main concern is with the DOC video, where he believes the evidence does not support the claims made in it.While the Media Council accepts to some extent Mr Lynch’s argument that the publication of the video is similar to the publication of remarks made by an organisation’s spokesperson in response to a request for comment, it does not believe this absolves Stuff from all obligations of accuracy. News publications must take responsibility for the accuracy of the material they publish, whether it was created by their staff or obtained from outside sources. In this case, however, the video includes not only DOC’s opinion on the increase in bird numbers, but also the evidence on which it was based, thus enabling readers to form their own views on the validity of the opinion.. Mr Batten has formed his own view,correctly noting that the evidence does not cover all species of bird likely to be, or have been, living in the relevant area, and that the graphs are open to more than one interpretation, particularly in view of the small number of data points on each graph. However he does not suggest the bird counts are inaccurate – he merely questions the inferences to be drawn from the data. In such circumstances, the Media Council does not find that there is any inaccuracy.

The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Marie Shroff, Hank Schouten, Christina Tay, Tim Watkin and Tracy Watkins.