CHRIS FALCONER AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 3161

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2021

Verdict: Not Upheld with Dissent

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Headlines and Captions
Unfair Coverage

Overview

[1] Chris Falconer has complained about an article headlined This Is How It Ends: How producing milk turned a lake bright orange, published by Stuff on October 31, 2021.

[2] This Is How It Ends is the title of a seven-part documentary series written, produced and shot by Andrea Vance and Iain McGregor, investigating “the biodiversity crisis”. It is funded by New Zealand on Air. The series introduction begins, “Human activities are destroying the natural world, leading to the extinction of animal and plant species at a terrifying rate”.

[3] The article that is the subject of this complaint is one of three in a group of articles on Fresh Water. The headline for the story on the Fresh Water page reads The NZ lake among the most polluted in the world.

The Complaint

[4] The complainant raises three principles in his complaint: Principle 1 Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; Principle 4 Comment and Fact; and Principle 6 Headlines and Captions. In. this case the Council considered the complaint under Principle 6, which says headlines must be “accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report” and Principle 1, which says all parts of an article, including the headline, must be accurate and not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission”.

[5] Mr Falconer says the headline is “patently untrue”. The pollution of Lake Waikare is due to changes made to its hydrology following the commissioning of a flood protection scheme [in 1965], not neighbouring dairy farms. 

 

[6] None of the experts in the article state dairying was “solely” to blame for the pollution, as the headline suggests, and no experts on Lake Waikare specifically were included in the story. Only DairyNZ’s David Burger commented on why the lake is in its current state, he says. Instead of relying on the experts, Stuff took its headline from the words of an environment activist quoted in the story.

[7] Mr Falconer is concerned that the lake’s hydrology is downplayed with the emphasis going on cows. Many other lakes similarly surrounded by dairy farms that aren’t as polluted; the distinct difference is the change to the lake since the commissioning of the flood protection scheme.

[8] In a further comment, after the editor’s response, Mr Falconer says his primary concern is that “scapegoating dairy only serves to deflect from the work that needs to be done to restore Waikare” and that he cares deeply about this taonga.
 

[9] He says thorough research would have referenced the Lake Waikare and Whangamarino Wetland Catchment Management Plan, which raises other issues behind the lake’s pollution, including sediment, the lowering of the lake for flood protection, and koi carp.

The Response

[10] Stuff’s Editor in Chief Newsrooms, Bernadette Courtney, replied to the complainant initially, saying the headline was not untrue and that “the article is based on a number of experts pointing to two decades of intensive dairying.”

[11] She refused to change the headline, saying nutrient run-off is the main reason for the pollution and “artificially lowering of the lake doesn’t pollute it”.

[12] In her response to the Media Council, Courtney stands by the headline. She points to the experts quoted in the article: Environmental activist Steve Abel; Head of Otago University’s Zoology department, freshwater ecologist Gerry Closs; Victoria University’s freshwater ecologist Mike Joy; and Dairy NZ strategy and investment leader David Burger, a water quality scientist. The full series took a year of “deep research”.

[13] She concedes that Mr Falconer is correct that there are a number of factors affecting the lake but dairying is one of them. She notes that DairyNZ have not complained about the headline.

The Decision

[14] There seems little doubt that intensive dairying has been a significant contributor to the pollution of Lake Waikare, be it directly from run-off or indirectly via impacts such as the loss of wetlands to farming. The question is whether readers can rely on the headline as accurate and fair when it is so definitive. Under Principle 6, does the reference to milk production at the exclusion of all other impacts amount to the headline capturing “a key element of the report”? And under Principle 1, is the headline accurate?

[15] The complainant at first seemed definitive in his insistence that the pollution was down to the altered hydrology of the lake, stemming from the flood protection scheme more than 50 years ago. But his final comment pointed to the range of potential impacts behind the lake’s parlous state.

[16] Certainly, online information from local councils, including the management plan referred to, do point to a range of reasons for the colour of Lake Waikare.

[17] By Stuff’s own reporting, failings at a local water treatment plant, the lowering of the river for flood protection, the koi fish and dairying have all conspired to damage the lake. The headline captures none of that nuance.

[18] Contrary to Courtney’s assertion that the lake levels do not contribute to the pollution, one article from Stuff in July says, “Low-lake levels, surrounding farming practices and infestation of koi carp has led to its degraded state”.

[19] Waikato Regional Council Resource Use Director Brent Sinclair is quoted in the story saying the degradation of Lake Waikare is not due just to the treatment plant, which is the focus of that article, but is down to “multiple factors”. Dr Mike Joy, one of the experts Courtney relies on in her response is very critical of the Waikato District Council, saying it should face a sizeable fine for its failure over the water treatment plant.

[20] Indeed, even in this article, Vance and McGregor reference the lowering of the lake, the koi, sediment and the non-compliant wastewater plant.

[21] With the information to hand, it’s clear there are multiple strands that led to the pollution of the lake. It’s also clear many of them involved milk production in some way or another. The Council considered the headline to be at least partly inaccurate by omission but also containing a key element of truth.

[22] Headlines are imperfect constructs that cannot possibly capture all the subtleties of an in-depth report and our principle does not expect every point in the story – or even most – to be summarised in one line. While this was a poorly crafted headline and any number of alternatives would have served readers better, under Principle 6 it did capture a “key element” of the story. “Producing milk” – a phrase that goes beyond the mere farming of cows – has been a key reason behind the lake’s pollution, as is made clear in the article. But under Principle 1, was it accurate enough?

Majority Decision
 

[23] While this headline sits on the boundary of acceptability and over-simplifies the article in a misleading way, it is saved under Principle 6 by the fact it does convey “a key element of the report”, as discussed above. It is not upheld under Principle 6, Headlines and Captions.

 
24] While the headline is far from the whole truth and goes further than was wise, there’s little doubt dairying – directly, indirectly and over time – has been a significant contributor to the lake’s current woeful condition. Therefore it contains enough of the truth to not be considered inaccurate. The complaint is not upheld under Principle 1, Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.

 
The complaint is not upheld by a majority of Council members.

  Dissent

 
Three members of the Media Council Raynor Asher, Liz Brown and Hank Schouten would have upheld the complaint.  This is their dissent:

 
Under article 1 of the Media Council principles, publications are bound to be accurate.  The principle applies to headlines as much as any other part of a publication. 

 
This headline was plainly inaccurate.  It attributed the shocking state of Lake Waikare to one factor, the production of milk.  To put the headline the other way round, it was saying that the lake turned bright orange because of the production of milk.  The “production of milk” must mean the farming of dairy cows, the milking of such cows, and works that involve turning the milk into a marketable product.  The bolded paragraph that followed also re-enforced the message that dairying was the sole cause, referring to “dairying” and saying that the lake “turning vivid orange” was a “powerful symbol of the true cost of producing milk, our liquid gold”.

 
In fact milk production/dairying was not the sole cause of the lake turning orange.  The article goes on after 21 paragraphs and four photographs to say so.  Other significant causes were:

  • “booming development in nearby Te Kauwhata”, driven by “Auckland’s housing pressures”, putting pressure on “crumbling water infrastructure”;
  • for three years the local council allowing “non-compliant wastewater contaminated with phosphorus, nitrogen and E.coli to be discharged into the lake”;
  • Carp stirring it up;
  • The removal of vegetation around the edges;
  • Wetland, a natural filter, declining 67%.

 
While some of these other causes may have had some connection to dairying, plainly some did not. 

Indeed within the article there is a link to an article of 16 July 2021 focusing on the council’s “three years of discharge into the lake”, which it is said with “high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous drive algae blooms and algae flows, …. cause the lake to turn different colours”.  It also refers to farming practices and the infestation of koi carp as other causes, and quotes a Waikato Council Resource Director as saying that the degradation of the lake “is due to multiple factors”.

Thus an incorrect message has been given by the headline and the first bolded paragraph.  It is not right to say that the bad state of the lake is all the fault of dairying. 

Under Principle 6 of the Media Council principles some leeway is given to headlines.  Plainly they often cannot convey all the substance of an article.  They can just convey a key element.  But dairying being the sole cause of the bad state of the lake is not an element of the story at all.  The story itself if read in full, and the earlier article, convey a quite different message.  It is a useful article, and series of this type are important for communities and are to be encouraged.

However the inaccurate headline and bolded first paragraph are not cured by the reference much later in the article to the other causes, or the cross reference to the article on the three year council discharge.  Damage is done by such an inaccurate headline and opening message, as readers will often read no further.  They will be misled.  It is a crucial aspect of the need for accuracy and fairness in reporting that headlines do not so mislead.

Therefore we would uphold the complaint.

Media Council members voting to not uphold the complaint were Rosemary Barraclough, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Sandy Gill, Marie Shroff and Tim Watkin.

Media Council members voting to uphold the complaint were Raynor Asher, Liz Brown and Hank Schouten.

Jonathan MacKenzie took no part in the consideration of this complaint.


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