DR LYNLEY HOOD AGAINST THE NEW ZEALAND WOMAN’S WEEKLY
Case Number: 3426
Council Meeting: 7 August 2023
Publication: New Zealand Woman's Weekly
Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Headlines and Captions
- Dr Lynley Hood has complained about a cover line published by the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly on April 17, 2023 and the magazine's failure to respond properly to her complaint. The cover line read “ ‘My back pain cured my blindness’ .”
- The article was about Dr Hood herself and tells of her sudden loss of sight when aged 67. For 12 years she suffered “very poor vision” and was unable to read and continue her career as a writer. In 2020 Dr Hood suffered a fall that led her to volunteer for a University of Otago study into chronic back pain. The brain stimulation prompted by the treatment used in the back study has improved her sight to the extent she is again able to read and write.
- Dr Hood complains about the cover line under Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, which says publications should not deliberately mislead or misinform reader by commission or omission, and Principle (6) Headlines and Captions which says a headline must convey the substance or a key element of the story. She complains about the way the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly (NZWW) handled her concerns under Principle (12) Corrections which says significant errors should be promptly corrected with fair prominence.
- The complainant describes the cover line as “absurd” and was concerned the single quote marks told readers she said those precise words. She insists she did not and is worried the use of single quotes around words that were never said undermines media credibility.
- She emailed her interviewer to complain on April 17, prompting a string of emails over the next two months.
- The journalist replied, explaining cover lines are the responsibility of sub-editors. She apologised to Dr Hood and promised to pass the issue onto the editor. Another email the next day (April 18) relayed the magazine's explanation to Dr Hood that when single quote marks are used, it means the words are “not a direct quote, as opposed to double quotation marks which signify a direct quote". The interviewer pointed out magazines have limited cover space and “paraphrase pretty liberally” to sell the magazine, adding that the editor was happy to talk to her.
- Dr Hood emailed the magazine eight working days later (April 28), saying that before talking she wanted to know the source for the claim that using single quotes indicated a paraphrase rather than a direct quote. After two working weeks without a reply, Dr Hood wrote (May 15) saying she intended to contact the Media Council, to complain that she was “quoted on the front cover… saying something I did not say.”
- It was a further eight days before the editor replied (May 23), suggesting a phone call. Dr Hood replied the next morning (May 24) saying she was “heading out of town tomorrow” and would be out of contact until June 5 – seven working days. She asked again for proof that single quote marks can be used the way the NZWW used them.
- On June 6 – the day after Dr Hood’s return – the editor sent an email asking how Dr Hood wanted “to move forward”. Dr Hood replied hours later saying she was sad her complaint had dragged on and asked what the NZWW had learnt and what it would do to prevent this happening again. She says she received no reply.
- Dr Hood says the NZWW “failed to respond appropriately” and despite repeated attempts to explain her concerns, the magazine did not deal with the specifics of her complaint.
- Dr Hood’s initial interaction over her complaint was with the journalist who interviewed her. From that correspondence it appears the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly editor became aware of Dr Hood’s complaint on April 18 – a day after publication. Dr Hood emailed the magazine on April 28 and then, having received no reply, again on May 15.
- The first email from the editor was May 23, suggesting a phone call that day or the next, which Dr Hood declined because she was going away. The second and last email was June 6.
- In response to the Media Council, the NZWW admits the cover line “was not as clear as it could be about the causative relationship between Dr Hood’s back pain and regained eyesight” and apologises to her for any embarrassment. It had reflected on the complaint and will “be mindful of this issue in future publications."
- However, the NZWW disagrees that the line is in breach of Council principles, saying it was accurate, fair and balanced considering the full explanation in the story. The line was a “dramatic” way of explaining the link between the back pain and eyesight and readers would have expected more details in the story, which is what they got. More details about the treatment were also in the headline on the page.
- The NZWW says it is common for magazines to use brief lines on their covers because of limited space.
- It continues “the cover line was a paraphrasing of the causative link between Dr Hood’s back pain and regained eyesight. That would have been clear to readers of the Woman’s Weekly given the style of the magazine and its invariable convention of using single quotation marks to signify a paraphrased comment as further illustrated by the other coverlines appearing on that front cover. The Woman’s Weekly did not attribute the comment to Dr Hood because it did not employ double quotation marks, which are the correct way of expressing a direct quote.”
- On the complaint under Principle (12), the magazine says it tried to speak with Dr Hood on more than one occasion. Dr Hood did not take the opportunity to speak with the Weekly when the article was “reasonably fresh.”
While it saw little value in “bringing it back to the fore”, the NZWW ran a clarification about the cover line in its August 7 issue, which
In our 17 April edition, we included an inspiring story about author Lynley Hood who regained her eyesight. We wish to clarify a caption on the cover page which may have suggested that Dr Hood regained her eyesight due to back pain. As stated in the full article, Dr Hood’s eyesight improved as a result of a regular procedure she received as part of a clinical trial for chronic pain sufferers, which she was involved with due to her back pain.
- In its final comment, the NZWW pointed to other coverage of Dr Hood’s cure, which also used imprecise headlines, revealing the detail in the stories. Several stories headlined her cure using the word “miracle” because Dr Hood was part of the placebo group in the trial, something not reported in the Weekly story. This underlines the fact the story was incredible and unlikely, something captured by the NZWW’s cover line. Dr Hood responded that other media did not put quote marks around words she did not say.
- On one level, the question of whether the NZWW’s cover line is accurate and fair under Principles (1) and (6) comes down to degrees of separation. There is clearly a link between Dr Hood suffering back pain and the recovery of her sight; the latter would not have happened without the former. On the other hand the link is not direct and the cover line omits the critical step – Dr Hood’s treatment as part of the university research. (It is noted that the experts quoted in all of the stories cannot be certain how her sight recovered and both used the word “miracle”).
- Cover lines on women’s magazines have prompted similar complaints to the Council over the years. Ruling 2339 Christine Heatherbell-Brown v Woman’s Day in 2013 and Ruling 1060 Trian Stevens against Woman’s Day in 2006 are relevant examples. These findings make the point that women’s magazines trade in gossip and escapism, so they are afforded some latitude when it comes to cover lines. We have not wanted to put a heavy hand on what are often light stories about celebrities seeking attention.
- In this case Dr Hood has sought attention, but in the hope her story may help others and encourage research. She is not a celebrity with a movie or album to promote. Her story is not escapist gossip and the NZWW should have understood the difference.
- Where Dr Hood’s complaint is more complex is that it doesn’t just involve the choice of words in the cover line, but rather the use of punctuation. Dr Hood’s key concern is that the use of single quote marks attribute the words to her and readers will think she believes the “absurd” idea that there is a direct link between her back pain and sight restoration without any degree of separation.
- The idea that single quote marks are distinct from double quote marks is a contested idea. Magazines have long held that because of limited cover space they can put quote marks – often but not always single quote marks – around words that paraphrase a direct quote, as long as they fairly represent what the person said. The use of quotes in this way is not unusual in magazines, though it is rare in other media. As the NZWW says, there are other examples of paraphrased quotes on the very same cover.
- The Council sympathises with Dr Hood and the reductive and imprecise nature of this cover line. The NZWW should have done better. To its credit the magazine acknowledged that in its response to the Council and its August 7 clarification. On one hand, Dr Hood is correct that in these days of ‘fake news’ media need to be especially protective of their credibility. On the other hand we note a point made in Council ruling 1060, that the Council does not want to police the use of punctuation which evolves as does language.
- On balance – and it is a fine balance – the Council does not think this cover line warrants the use of its sternest sanction – upholding a complaint. While the line is marginal, the fact is Dr Hood did volunteer the story of her fall, the back pain she suffered and how that – after treatment – led to a cure for her blindness. The complaint is not upheld under Principle (1) or Principle (6).
- Dr Hood also complained about how her concerns were handled by the NZWW. The email exchanges suggest the parties were speaking past each other and at any time either party could have picked up the phone and resolved the matter. Both the evidence Dr Hood wanted and the guidance the magazine sought could have been provided in a single conversation.
- The NZWW’s editor was aware of the issue the day after publication – April 18. Yet by June 6 she had not spoken with Dr Hood and the matter was unresolved. While Dr Hood oddly turned down the chance to talk to the editor when she had two days to do so before a trip, the editor let a month pass before her first direct email and after June 6 simply stopped communicating with Dr Hood. The NZWW says the editor had, via the journalist, offered to speak to Dr Hood. She did not realise for ten days Dr Hood was still unhappy, when Dr Hood emailed directly. Dr Hood emailed again on May 15 having had no response. The NZWW says the editor was travelling or sick over this fortnight. Over the subsequent three weeks another four or five emails were exchanged (Dr Hood and NZWW make different claims) before the NZWW simply stopped replying to Dr Hood, having decided there was "no utility in having a conversation".
- The back and forth is tortuous on both sides, but in short, there was clearly an issue to be resolved, and after nearly seven weeks it was not. The onus is on the publication to handle complaints and corrections promptly. The illness, travel plans or "extenuating circumstances" of a single staff member is no good reason to leave complaints unresolved for days, let alone weeks. On top of that, the NZWW took the unusual step of crafting and publishing a clarification without consulting with the complainant. The handling was not prompt nor did it help defuse the complaint or enhance the magazine’s credibility. The complaint is upheld under Principle (12).
- Decision: The cover line itself is marginal, so the complaint under Principles (1) and (6) is not upheld. However, the slow and sloppy handling of Dr Hood’s concerns mean her complaint is upheld under Principle (12).
Council members considering the complaint were Marie Shroff (Chair), Hank Schouten, Rosemary Barraclough, Tim Watkin, Scott Inglis, Ben France-Hudson, Judi Jones, Reina Vaai, Alison Thom.