Felicity Marshall complained to the Press Council that a headline on an article published on 16 December 2007 in the Herald on Sunday breached the Press Council’s principles on discrimination and fairness.

The complaint is not upheld.


The article, headlined “Should your money be used to slim this?” noted that the Counties Manukau District Health Board had approved funding to provide stomach stapling operations for 60 diabetic patients. The board was using the trial to see whether this could be a cost-effective way of treating patients with obesity-related problems. A small, rear view photograph of a severely obese person sitting on a chair, cropped to exclude the subject’s head and shoulders, was positioned alongside the story.

The article gave a range of views and information, and indicated that a public opinion poll is being carried out to gauge public opinion on the state funding stomach stapling operations, most of which currently are done privately.

A summary of the issues involved was boxed under the heading “Fighting the flab”.

The Complaint

In her initial complaint to the editor, Ms Marshall stated that she recognized that the article was fair and balanced. However, she believed that the headline (placed next to the shot of a person with severe obesity) dehumanized the person in the photograph, and as a corollary dehumanized all people with severe obesity.
She went on to say that people with severe obesity face discrimination every day. She asked for a formal retraction, and an apology to the severely obese people humiliated by the article.
In addressing her complaint to the Press Council, Ms Marshall suggested that the headline should more appropriately have read: “Should your money be used to help obese people slim?”

The Newspaper’s Response

In his initial response to the complainant the editor said that the “this” in the headline referred to the person’s body fat not the person, who was not recognizable, and that the photograph was sourced from overseas. There was never any intention of offending anyone.
When responding to the complaint to the Press Council, the editor further stated that he considered Ms Marshall was taking a “very extreme politically correct view” and that “obesity is an extremely serious public health issue in New Zealand, and the article and accompanying headline were an accurate, valid reflection of the matters raised”.

Further Comment and Information
The complainant provided the Press Council with a copy of the Rudd Report, from the Rudd Centre for Food Policy and Obesity, Yale University (2008). This report identifies that obese people encounter extreme discrimination in many areas of public life, employment and in academic institutions.
Ms Marshall states in her further letter that she does not believe that she is taking a “very extreme” and “politically correct” view. “Weight bias is an important issue, and more needs to be done, both socially and politically, to combat it.”
In his final response, the editor reiterates that the headline was not offensive, but was accurate and valid, and drew the reader into a very balanced article.

The complaint is not upheld. Discrimination involves a gratuitous emphasis. The word “this” in the headline could be read to include the photographic depiction of severe obesity. However, it can also be read as a fair reflection of the subject matter of the article, which was itself both fair and balanced. The Press Council acknowledges that severely obese readers may have found the headline offensive, humiliating or even hurtful but that does not make it discriminatory.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Kate Coughlan, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Lynn Scott.

John Gardner took no part in the consideration of this complaint.


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