FITNESS NEW ZEALAND AGAINST THE DOMINION POSTFitness New Zealand (“FitnessNZ”), through its CEO Richard Beddie, has complained about a feature article, entitled “Failing to Shape Up”, published in The Dominion Post on17 March 2005 and syndicated in the Timaru Herald on 26 March 2005. The article is a feature story on the reasons why people who go to the gym do not necessarily get into shape. The story was built around responses to specific questions and general comments from various people with some form of expertise or involvement in gym-based exercise and its effects. Mr Beddie complains that the article lacked balance, was inaccurate, did not clearly differentiate between fact and opinion, and that the headline, lead-in and captions did not fairly reflect the content of the story or were biased. Further grounds raised were not properly before the Press Council.
The complaint is not upheld.
There are no hard and fast rules for balance. In this case, the Press Council is of the view that the article as a whole presented a balance of views from an appropriate balance of qualified people on a suitably balanced range of specific issues relevant to the question raised. It may be that a very different story would have resulted if different people had been approached. It may also be that more statements supportive of personal trainers and the potential benefits of gym exercise could have been included without breaking up the story. And it may be that a counter-opinion could have been included for each statement that Mr Beddie has objected to. But that does not mean that the article as written therefore lacked balance. The reporter was entitled to choose the angle that she would take. The “significant omissions” that Mr Beddie pointed to as examples of lack of balance were either counter-arguments or differences of opinion and emphasis. The editor invited Mr Beddie to submit a letter to the editor. That is the appropriate forum for Mr Beddie to air FitnessNZ’s particular point of view.
Accuracy and distinction between fact and opinion
Mr Beddie complains that three statements, included in the story, are inaccurate. The first is a quote, from an academic from the Sport and Life Sciences faculty at Massey University, to the effect that gym-exercise is not fat-burning unless extraordinarily prolonged. Mr Beddie provided a survey recording that many of FitnessNZ’s members disagreed with the academic. Mr Beddie also provided letters, from an academic at a different university and from a practitioner, expressing a contrary opinion. That does not mean that the statement reported was factually incorrect. It simply means that there are different opinions about this matter. A different take on the issue was included in the article, in the form of comment from another academic, discussing how gym exercise can lead to weight loss and muscle toning.
Mr Beddie also complains that the Massey academic’s quoted opinion on fat-burning and gym exercise is repeated as the caption to one of the photographs without being attributed to him or clearly identified as an opinion rather than a statement of fact. The editor concedes that this was an oversight. In light of that concession and the limited impact of the error on the article as a whole, it is not necessary for the Press Council to intervene.
The second statement referred to quality assurance in personal training through a registration scheme that “requires at least one year of training”. Mr Beddie provided the Press Council with a letter from Nathan Burrows, the Registration Manager of the New Zealand Register of Exercise Professionals. He says that the organisation “…does not use length of study in any of its criteria, and instead uses the worldwide agreed process of ensuring both competency and experience to ensure that individuals meet the standards required by the industry.” Mr Burrows does not say that registration is possible with less than a year of training or that it would take longer than a year. The reporter used the one-year minimum, referred to by a person being interviewed who turned out to be a member of the registration board, because it was more readily understandable than a competency and experience matrix. There is nothing before the Press Council to suggest that it was wrong.
The third statement, that body builders often become personal trainers, is a paraphrase of part of a quote. Mr Beddie argues that (1) it is presented as a fact when it is actually opinion (2) the person being quoted is not qualified to make such a claim, and (3) it is wrong. The statement appears between two quotes, following on from each other, from an osteopath. Read in context, it is obvious that the statement is related to, and part of, the osteopath’s comments; it is not presented as an independent fact. Mr Beddie points to the results of FitnessNZ’s annual survey on the make up of exercise professionals in New Zealand, which indicates that fewer than 1% of personal trainers have a body building background. However, the survey does not record what percentage of body builders become personal trainers, which is the point that the osteopath was making. The editor argues that the comment was based on common sense rather than a claim to in-depth knowledge of the personal training industry. Again, read in context, the statement is not in any way inaccurate or misleading.
Mr Beddie also complains that an English academic, Chris Riddoch, was misquoted in the article and that he was incorrectly described as “a physiology lecturer at Bristol University”. In the article, an osteopath commented that it is healthier to exercise on your own feet than on “a weight machine bolted to the floor” because they strengthen one set of muscles at the expense of other joint-stabilising muscles. The article went on to note that such machines only began to appear in gyms in the past 20 years. Chris Riddoch (whose name was misspelt as Ruddoch in the article), was then quoted as saying that the claims made for a lot of them were “wildly exaggerated and nearly all of them are untested”.
In support of the complaint, Mr Beddie provided copies of email correspondence in which he tracked down Mr Riddoch, referred him to the article and asked him to comment on what he was reported as saying. Mr Riddoch replied that he had made some comments like that about weight loss gimmicks but not about gym equipment “most of which …is excellent”. The email correspondence shows that Mr Riddoch is now the head of the London Sport Institute at Middlesex University. It also shows that he was at Bristol University but the details of that appointment are unclear. It does not show when he left Bristol University. The editor has provided the Press Council with the full quote from which Mr Riddoch’s comment was taken and notes that he has not complained or sought any correction, despite having the matter drawn to his attention. The Press Council is not persuaded that Mr Riddoch was misquoted or taken out of context. Further, although the editor acknowledges that Mr Riddoch’s name was misspelt, there is nothing to suggest the error was deliberate or intended to mislead.
Headline and captions
Mr Beddie complains that the headline and the introductory paragraph do not fairly reflect the content of the story as a whole or, as an alternative, that it demonstrates that the story is biased. The Press Council does not agree. The headline is “Failing to Shape Up”. The lead-in reads “Gyms are not the cure-all for saggy bottoms and flabby underarms they might seem. They could even be bad for your health.” The caption to one photograph is the unattributed statement about gym-exercise and fat burning (see above). But the other photograph is of Suzanne Prentice doing a pose-down for her personal trainer. The caption notes that she lost 43kgs after joining a gym. The story is about why gym-membership will not necessarily mean that you get into shape. Various reasons are debated within the story, including spot exercises, metabolic stimulation, and the possibility of ill-effects. The headline, lead-in and photograph captions as a whole accurately reflect the story as a whole which, as noted above, is balanced.
Other grounds raised
FitnessNZ’s complaint included claims that one of the people interviewed for and quoted in the article was misled as to the purpose of the article in order to secure his involvement and, further, that he was misquoted and taken out of context. That person’s complaint was dealt with by the newspaper. He has not complained to the Press Council, and Mr Beddie does not speak on his behalf. In these circumstances, the Press Council will not consider the further grounds of complaint that relate to him.
The complaint is not upheld. Both The Dominion Post and the Timaru Herald invited Mr Beddie to submit a letter to the editor expressing FitnessNZ’s views. The Press Council is advised that The Dominion Post’s offer remains open.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Puata, Lynn Scott, Alan Samson, Murray Williams, Denis McLean, Clive Lind, Terry Snow and John Gardner.