The Press Council has upheld a complaint by Dr Denise Dalziel against the New Zealand Listener about cover headlines on its edition of November 18-26 2006. The Council found the magazine breached its principle on headlines.

The cover story for the edition in question was about obesity in New Zealand and efforts being made by the Government and others to encourage people to eat healthy food and to exercise. The cover featured a photograph of personality Maggie Barry next to the headline: Put to the Test NZ’S WORLD LEADING WEIGHT LOSS PLAN. Under the headline was the quote: “I didn’t want to turn 50 and be overweight” – Maggie Barry.

The Complaint
In her complaint to the Press Council Dr Dalziel said she bought a copy of The Listener after seeing the headline. She said she was not a regular buyer of the magazine but had a professional and personal interest in reading about the weight loss plan. As a general practitioner she counselled people about weight, diet and exercise, and wanted to keep abreast with what her patients were reading. She had a personal interest in that she was soon to turn 50 and did not wanted to be overweight either.

Dr Dalziel said she felt deceived by the cover title, thinking she was going to read about a leading or new weight-loss plan and about exactly how Maggie Barry lost weight. The article, however, did not contain such a plan. It suggested instead that New Zealand could become a world leader – and this was different to what was implied on the cover.

She said the article did not reveal anything new and stated “no country has worked out a way to curb obesity yet”. On 3 February 2007, Dr Dalziel complained to the Press Council saying the headers on The Listener cover had contravened the Council’s Principle 1 concerning accuracy and Principle 10 covering headlines and captions.

Dr Dalziel said she had not received a reply to a letter of complaint sent to the editor of The Listener in December.

The Listener’s Response
In its response to the Press Council, The Listener said it stood by its cover treatment and the inside feature about New Zealand being a possible leader in promoting weight loss. Editorial Business Manager Suzanne Chetwin said the cover clearly stated that New Zealand’s leading weight loss plan was being “put to the test”.

The feature article reported that the Government was committing $76 million to fight obesity and quoted leading Glasgow nutrition expert Mike Lean who believed New Zealand could be a world leader in the fight. As well, The Lancet medical journal said New Zealand was setting the agenda for fighting obesity worldwide.

The Listener said the article discussed government-funded initiatives, including a programme to tackle child obesity and health and noted Sports Minister Trevor Mallard’s view that SPARC (Sport and Recreation New Zealand) had made great progress compared to the ministries of health and education.

Maggie Barry had been an obvious choice for the cover because she was one of the most popular faces of the Government’s Push Play exercise campaign. While her exact regimen was not contained in the feature, Maggie Barry had been quoted as saying she had completed an Outward Bound course, now used the stairs, walked her son to school and used a pedometer.

The Listener said Dr Dalziel had singled out the statement that “no country has worked out a way to curb obesity yet”, but had not included the previous quote from Mr Lean: “It sounds good, it sounds like vote-catching stuff, but being realistic, other programmes that have tried to do this sort of thing haven’t been successful. But they haven’t been done in New Zealand and they haven’t been done in this way, so I’m not going to write it off.”

The Listener acknowledged that Dr Dalziel should have received a response to her letter.

The Press Council’s Principle 1 says publications should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers. Principle 10 says headlines, sub-headings and captions should accurately and fairly convey the substance of the report they are designed to cover.

The Listener’s cover words and headlines: Put to the Test NZ’S WORLD LEADING WEIGHT LOSS PLAN do not accurately convey the substance of the article. They suggest New Zealand has come up with a world-leading weight loss plan that someone is putting to the test. The person on the cover is a smiling Maggie Barry, who is quoted under the headings as saying. “I didn’t want to turn 50 and be overweight” – Maggie Barry.

It is reasonable to draw the conclusion from the cover that Maggie Barry has been testing New Zealand’s world-leading weight-loss plan. Dr Dalziel bought The Listener expecting to read about the plan and Maggie Barry’s experience.

The feature article does not deliver. It talks in general terms about Maggie Barry’s desire to lose weight and become fit. The Listener has acknowledged that the article does not include her “exact regimen”. In fact, the article doesn’t say whether she managed to lose any weight at all. It talks in general terms about her taking more exercise.

There is no “weight-loss plan” as such mentioned in the article. The article talks about “a raft of initiatives”, including SPARC’s Push Play campaign, the “Mission On” child obesity campaign, the “Green Prescription”, “Let’s Beat Diabetes” and initiatives by government agencies and local councils to encourage people to walk or cycle rather than drive cars.

There is no “test” as such. The Listener article surveys the views of a number of health experts on the various initiatives and the impression the reader is left with is that not one single approach will overcome the problem of obesity.

The majority of the Press Council does not find the cover headlines to be deliberately misleading, but upholds the complaint on the grounds that they did not accurately represent the report that followed. Three members of the Council dissented from this decision (see below)

It is unfortunate that The Listener did not reply to Dr Dalziel’s original letter of complaint

Minority Dissent
A minority held that the cover headline PUT TO THE TEST : NZ’S WORLD LEADING WEIGHT LOSS PLAN could be understood as accurately referring to the government’s announced commitment to fighting obesity, as discussed in the article. The opening phrase, “Put To The Test”, could be understood as posing the question: was the government’s programme to counter the problem of increasing obesity likely to succeed?

Linking the piece with a largely unrelated case study of broadcaster Maggie Barry, and using a photograph of her on the cover, was certainly confusing, but this in itself was not enough to render the cover headers a contravention of Press Council principles requiring headlines, sub-headings and captions to accurately and fairly convey the substance of the report they are designed to cover.

The minority would therefore not uphold.

Press Council members upholding the complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Denis McLean and Lynn Scott

Press Council members not upholding the complaint were Kate Coughlan, Keith Lees and Alan Samson.


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