Case Number: 2833

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2019

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: Radio NZ

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Headlines and Captions
Social Media


(1) Eric Crampton complains that a BBC story published on RNZ’s website about the death of a US man breaches the New Zealand Media Council’s Headlines and Captions principle.

(2) The story was published on the national broadcaster’s website on September 16, 2019 under the heading -Second person in the US dies from vaping.

(3) The story details the death of an American, in Oregon, from severe lung disease apparently caused by vaping. The story notes that the death is the second fatality linked to people vaping recreational cannabis.

(4) Backgrounding the issue, the story states that experts are investigating more than 200 cases in the United States where people have been affected by a mysterious lung disease linked to e-cigarettes or vaping.

The Complaint

(5) Mr Crampton contends that the heading on the story - Second person in the US dies from vaping “Conflates the problems in the US, which increasingly look to be a consequence of adulterated illicit THC vaping cartridges with potential risks of vaping the nicotine products that Kiwis use to assist in stopping smoking.”

(6) Mr Crampton says he “specifically cited the headline as misleading for not distinguishing between vaping of THC product and vaping of anything available in New Zealand.”

(7) He said RNZ changed the headline to Second US death linked to vapingafter he complained but in his view the change was inadequate because the problem “isn’t whether the death was caused by or linked to vaping but the nature of the product consumed and its relevance to the New Zealand policy discussion.”

The Response

(8) RNZ Complaints coordinator George Bignell said RNZ was happy to alter the heading at the time of Mr Crampton’s complaint from -Second person in the US dies from vaping to Second US death linked to vaping.

(9) Mr Bignell said the story was fast developing and currently the science is unclear that any, let alone all, of the US deaths linked to vaping have been caused by THC type ingredients.

(10) He said the story outlined in the second sentence that the victim was said to have fallen ill after trying a product bought at a dispensary for recreational cannabis.

(11) The story goes on to say in the fifth sentence that: “Several of the cases – which have emerged since the end of June - involving vaping THC, the main active compound in cannabis, experts from the US Centers for Disease Control Prevention said.”

(12) Also, a few sentences later, the story states that: “Meanwhile the Washington Post reported that health officials had linked the illnesses to an oil derived from vitamin E, found in samples of marijuana products used by the victims.”

(13) Mr Bignell says those statements are sufficient to alert readers to the possibility that the deaths were not necessarily caused by nicotine derived vaping products. He said the tone of the article was about the safety concerns around vaping. “It was not a precise analysis of what at that stage was, and still remains, an unresolved mystery as to the specific causes of death in the cases reported.”

Mr Crampton’s Second Response

(14) Mr Crampton was not satisfied with Mr Bignell’s defence of the story and headline. Mr Crampton accepted that the story noted that the case was related to vaping cannabis products containing THC but he said that it was “well below the fold” and therefore unnoticeable to those who saw “the snippet” on Twitter “or the headline otherwise”.

(15) Mr Crampton said RNZ’s changing of the headline did nothing to address his concern. He saidRNZ’s conflation of illness due to vaping illicit THC products with vaping more generally will discourage smokers from switching to nicotine vaping and may encourage some vapers to switch back to smoking.

(16) He said “misleading headlines and snippets” fuel public misperceptions in pernicious ways when the Government is in the midst of finalising relevant regulations.

The Discussion

(17) The New Zealand Media Council’s principle relating to headlines and captions is clear and unambiguous.

(18) The principle states that: Headlines, sub-headings, and captions should accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to cover.

(19) It is the Council’s view that the headline - Second US death linked to vaping – is accurate and fairly conveys the substance of the story.

(20) Regardless of the substance inhaled, it was delivered by a vaping apparatus so the victim’s death was linked to vaping. That is accurate.

(21) Mr Crampton makes a case that the snippet on Twitter was particularly misleading as those reading the tweet in isolation would not be exposed to the commentary on vaping THC based cannabis products. The Council takes his point and believes readers would have been better served if the tweet had included the words THC or cannabis at the end. So,Second US death linked to vaping cannabis, for example.

(22) However, the Council does not believe that the omission of the words THC or cannabis breaches its headlines and captions principle.

(23) Mr Crampton complains that the relevant paragraphs about the THC component of the story are “below the fold” meaning those who don’t read the full story could be misinformed.

(24) However, as Mr Bignell points out, readers of the story are left in no doubt that as far as it is known the victim was vaping a cannabis product containing THC, not nicotine. This information is provided high up in the story in the second paragraph and references are also made later in the story compounding the effect.

(25) The Council believes that people with an interest in vaping or smoking would be highly likely to read at least until the second paragraph of the story which mentions the fact that the victim fell ill after vaping a cannabis product containing THC.

(26) The Council does not support Mr Crampton’s view that the heading would misinform some people.

(27) The story also states that more than 200 people have been affected by a mysterious lung disease linked to vaping and these cases are being investigated.

(28) Later the story quotes US Center for Disease Control doctor Brian King warning vapers against thinking vaping is completely safe, stating that e-cigarettes do not emit a harmless aerosol.

The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Marie Shroff and Christina Tay.

Tim Watkin took no part in the consideration of this complaint.


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