GAYLENE BARNES AGAINST NEWSHUB

Case Number: 3341

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2022

Decision: Upheld

Publication: Newshub TV3

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Comment and Fact

Ruling Categories: Social Media

Overview

  1. Gaylene Barnes has complained about a story published by Newshub on July 26, 2022, headlined Anti-vax bride’s grandpa dies after she and Covid-positive groom continue with wedding despite ‘textbook symptoms’. Ms Barnes believes the story breaches NZMC Principles (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, and Principle (4) Comment and Fact. The complaint is upheld under Principle (1) and not upheld under Principle (4)

The Article

  1. The story is based on an American social media post to the Reddit forum. It was later cross posted by another social media user to a different forum called Bridezillas. The story is based on a post by a person alleging that they are related to a couple who married while they had Covid symptoms. The bride allegedly tested positive for the virus the night before the wedding and the upshot was that many guests fell ill and the bride’s grandfather, who walked her up the aisle, contracted the virus and subsequently died. The poster alleges that the couple and extended family were unlikely to be vaccinated, supported former American President Donald Trump and were racist. The author of the article used the post and the comments from forum users to string together a story about those events which ran in Newshub’s Health section.

The Complaint

  1. Gaylene Barnes maintains that the article breaches Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance and Principle (4) Comment and Fact, which states in part “ A clear distinction should be drawn between factual information and comment or opinion. An article that is essentially comment or opinion should be clearly presented as such”. Ms Barnes says the Newshub article is based on a story linked to a post on Reddit by an anonymous blogger JizzGuzzler420” and is ‘highly likely to be nonsense, i.e. disinformation”. The post was titled Bride literally murders grandpa.

  2. She says the story appears to have been cross posted numerous times and the writer “claims and links to an original post from a blogger called HermanCain Award” which is linked to in the story but that is not the original post.

  3. She says the origins of the original story are unclear and Reddit moderators had removed some of the crossposts on some accounts. The writer’s “ second hand Reddit blogger story, positioned in Newshub’s health section has obviously not been verified as fact”. 

  4. The writer had not made “great attempts to qualify the story as just that - a story about unknown anonymous characters - by proceeding to recount the events as if they happened”. 

  5. The writer “further spices up the narrative” with “particularly alarming facts at the top which to some people will serve to position this article as a factual story”. They included points about Donald Trump and his role in attempting to overthrow the 2020 U.S. election, his role in inciting the Capitol riots and advice about Covid vaccinations which Ms Barnes claims was misinformation. 

  6. The “news” item was particularly egregious because it was run in the Health section of the online news section on Newshub.

The Response

  1. In response, the Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD) Standards Committee said the article was not in breach of the Council’s principles.

  2. The Standards Committee was satisfied with the “veracity of the facts” and considered the “facts presented” were distinct from the comments in the article. “The committee maintains the article accurately presents the Ministry of Health’s position on Covid vaccines.”

  3. It said it was clear the article was based on various posts and the opinions of the people involved. “The comments are clearly identifiable as such and readers could judge the integrity of the reported comments for themselves.”

  4. “The Committee maintains that it is apparent throughout the story that this is not a verified news report, but an anecdote taken from a forum and that the anecdote in question has been quoted from said Reddit post and not a news story or other report.”

  5. The article included a screenshot of the post to corroborate further that the story is based on an anecdote from Reddit.

The Discussion

  1. Ms Barnes claims that the article contained “alarming” facts about former U.S. President Donald Trump, the riots at the Capitol and misinformation about Covid vaccines. The Media Council does not agree. The details about Mr Trump and the riots at the Capitol are not in dispute. The information from the Ministry of Health about vaccines against Covid-19 lowering the risk of infection, helping to prevent severe illness and that a fully vaccinated individual could experience little or no ymptoms and recover faster is also not in dispute. 

  2. The core of this complaint is Ms Barnes’ surprise and consternation that a story based on information from an internet forum poster with an obscene username has been published by a reputable news organisation in its Health section.
  1. Ms Barnes makes the point that the original post has been cross posted several times to various forums and the post is no longer available because moderators have removed it for breaching guidelines. Ms Barnes speculates that the Newshub story is based on a post that is highly likely to be “nonsense”. The Media Council is inclined to agree. Like Ms Barnes (and Newshub) the Council is unable to verify any of the details of the anonymous post. However, the Media Council's remit (as stated in our preamble) is to maintain the press in accordance with the highest professional standards. In this instance Newshub have failed to adhere to professional or ethical standards by taking an anonymous and dubious story off a website and simply repeating it.

  2. There was also no attempt to answer the basic who, what, why, where and when questions that are fundamental in all reporting. Without that, this story amounted to no more than rumour, gossip, fantasy or propaganda.

  3. Normally the Media Council might dismiss a complaint on Principle (1) on the basis that there is no evidence to show something is factually wrong. But Newshub did nothing to establish it was right - that it had any factual foundation at all - or that it was accurate, fair and balanced as required by Media Council Principle (1). It is not uncommon for news organisations to write stories based on social media posts but usually the facts are not in doubt and are able to be verified. This was not the case with this story. The writer has taken a social media post of dubious origins and effectively reverse engineered what they claim is a news story out of it. The piece was run in Newshub’s Health section alongside robust health stories which throws the flimsy nature of this story into stark relief. The Media Council is bound to maintain the highest professional standards. Many readers casually reading this story will have been misled into thinking it was a genuine item of health news, which plainly it was not.

  4. Newshub readers who might click on the hyperlinks in the story - back to Bridezillas and Reddit - find only the first line of the post because the rest has been deleted. The Council wonders what readers would make of this and suggests that at the very least it would undermine reader confidence in the provenance and veracity of the story, therefore the complaint is upheld under Principle (1).

  5. The Council is unable to uphold the complaint under Principle (4) Comment and Fact, because while the story purports to be a news story it does contain some facts about Covid-19 and vaccines. The piece is not written as straight out opinion as the writer is reporting on the opinions of various commenters about the original post and then attempts to contextualise the piece for a New Zealand audience with some Health Ministry information. In the Council’s view none of this redeems the article but neither does it condemn the piece as straight out opinion

  6. Decision The complaint is upheld under Principle (1) and not upheld on Principle (4).

  7. Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair); Hank Schouten; Rosemary Barraclough, Scott Inglis, Jonathan Mackenzie, Ben France-Hudson, Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, Marie Shroff, Reina Vaai, Alison Tom, Richard Pamatatau

 

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