FRIENDS OF THE EARTH AUSTRALIA AGAINST THE SPINOFF
Case Number: 2613
Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2017
Decision: Not Upheld
Publication: The Spinoff
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Conflict of Interest
Headlines and Captions
1. Both Friends of the Earth Australia and Julie Fogarty complain about three articles published byThe Spinoff in July 2017. Ms Fogarty also sought to lodge a complaint about an article published on November 24, 2016, but this complaint is out of time for consideration. The complaints are mainly of a breach of Press Council principle 1, concerning accuracy, fairness and balance, but principles 4 (opinion and fact), 6 (headlines and captions) and 10 (conflict of interest) are also relevant.
2. The Press Council does not uphold the complaints.
3. On July 4, 2017, The Spinoff published an article written by Jess Berentson-Shaw, its “parents’ science writer” commenting on an Australian study commissioned by Friends of the Earth that raised concerns about the potential toxicity of certain nanoparticles found in some brands of baby formula. The writer characterised the study as “bad science”, questioned the methodology of the study and noted that it was a single study rather than a body of research. She also referred to the extensive testing that must be carried out under food safety regulations. Her article included a link to more extensive comment in a blog post by a nanoparticle scientist, Dr Michelle Dickinson.
4. After Friends of the Earth had lodged its first complaint, and in response to it,The Spinoff published (on July 8) Dr Dickinson’s post in its entirety, together with comment from Peter Griffin of the Science Media Centre and comment from Louise Sales, Emerging Tech Project Co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth.
5. On July 20, The Spinoff published an article by a guest writer, Roz Palethorpe. The main focus of the article was the use of dubious marketing practices to target parents, but it included two paragraphs directed at the Friends of the Earth study which the writer described as based on shaky methodology and poor science.
6. Both complainants’ main complaint is of inaccuracy and a lack of balance in both the original article and the two further articles.
Friends of the Earth makes the following main points
- The stories were prompted by an article in the Sydney Morning Herald that included quotes from concerned members of the scientific community, but none ofThe Spinoff articles acknowledge these concerns, thus leading readers to believe that there is scientific consensus on the safety of the nanoparticles in infant formula.
- Food Standards Australia New Zealand has breached its own standards and taken down a standard from its website to conceal this, butThe Spinoff articles do not mention this.
- There are claims that the study commissioned by Friends of the Earth is based on unsound methodology and poor science. There is no mention that the study was carried out by leading nanometrologists at Arizona State University, using a method that had previously been used in a peer-reviewed paper.
- Similarly Dr Dickinson dismisses the findings of the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety when it concluded that there was insufficient evidence to find that the nanoparticles were safe to use in oral cosmetic products, such a toothpaste.
- Dr Dickinson’s article says that the Friends of the Earth study involved infant formula bought in America, when all the formula studied was bought in Australia.
Ms Fogarty generally makes the same points but adds concerns that:
- The article ignores the intrinsic health risks of infant formula.
- It ignores identified systemic issues in the Australian and New Zealand regulatory systems.
- In discussing the work of international regulatory agencies, the article provides a link to an abstract written by Nestle rather than one produced by such regulatory bodies.
7. After Friends of the Earth complained to the editor of The Spinoff, they were offered an opportunity to submit a further article setting out their views.The Spinoff undertook to put it in front of a neutral arbiter, but in fact submitted it to the Science Media Centre and published the ensuing comment from the Centre’s Peter Griffin along with the Friends of the Earth article. Mr Griffin was not neutral as he had already criticised the research. Moreover he has no nanotoxicity qualifications.
8. Both Friends of the Earth and Ms Fogarty complain that the articles present opinion as fact.
9. Friends of the Earth complains about the headline to the July 8 article “Sensational Headlines and Intimidation over “potentially toxic” nanoparticles in baby formula”. It says it does not accurately and fairly reflect the content of the post.
10. Finally, both Friends of the Earth and Ms Fogarty complain that The Spinoff and Dr Dickinson have conflicts of interest.The Spinoff website includes an acknowledgement that its science content is supported by the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology. Friends of the Earth say that there have been a number of articles published byThe Spinoff about the potential benefits of nanotechnology but none discussing the risks in any meaningful way. In addition, Dr Dickinson is a nanomaterial engineer and has worked with nano-hydroxyapatite systems. Ms Fogarty notes that Dr Dickinson works for the MacDiarmid Institute and says she has disclosed academic but not commercial interests in protecting the image of the nanotechnology sector.
11. Duncan Greive, editor of The Spinoff, responded to the complaints on behalf of The Spinoff. In both cases he said that “we read and corresponded with and published those who had issue with these stories. The science is complex and specialised, and we do not profess to be experts. However we do trust the science media centre – hence our going to them for a response. We published both the FoE response and the science media centre’s in one post, so as to make sure our lay readership was able to know the proper context with which to view the FoE response.”
12. The Press Council does not have either the expertise or the power to investigate competing scientific theories, but in this case, it notes that there is very little, if any, disagreement about the basic science involved. The disagreement is over the reliability and significance of the study commissioned by FoE. Nanoscience and nanotechnology are new fields and it is to be expected that differences of opinion will arise, will be vigorously debated and may eventually be settled by further research. The “inaccuracies” that are the subject of this complaint are generally differences of scientific opinion rather than debatable facts.
13. In this context, The Spinoff appears to have acted with good sense and integrity. It published a story based on material supplied by an expert in the field under discussion. When it became aware of the views of the Friends of the Earth, it offered them an opportunity to publish their views, and it also recognised its own lack of expertise by referring the issue to an independent authority. There is no doubt that the Science Media Centre provides competent and authoritative general scientific comment. It then published that comment along with the Friends of the Earth article and Dr Dickinson’s blog post, thus providing readers with a range of material on which to form their own views. This approach is both fair and balanced.
14. The only factual inaccuracy that the Press Council can find is in the first article where reference is made to the purchase of baby formula in America when it was purchased in Australia. It does not consider this a material inaccuracy, and notes that it was corrected in the second article.
15. Similarly, the Press Council does not find any breach of Principle 4. The articles are presented as scientific opinion and to the extent that the opinion is based on facts, there is no real dispute about the accuracy of the facts themselves rather than their interpretation.
16. Finally, the complainants appear to have misinterpreted the application of Principle 10. It does not prohibit the publication of sponsored material or of articles where the author has a financial interest in the subject matter, but it does require that such sponsorship or interest be disclosed. The sponsorship of the MacDiarmid Institute is clearly disclosed onThe Spinoff website, and Dr Dickinson’s own background is explained in her blog post.
17. The complaints are not upheld
Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Hank Schouten, Mark Stevens, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.