GAYLENE BARNS AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 3273

Council Meeting: JUNE 2022

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions
Photographs and Graphics

Ruling Categories: Misleading

Overview

1. In 2021 Stuff collaborated with Māori Television and the Pacific Media Network to produce, The Whole Truth: Covid-19 Vaccination. This was published over time across a range of social media and print publications with the purpose of countering the spread of misinformation about Covid-19. It was presented through a series of videos, graphics and words. 

2. Stuff also regularly publishes articles on the impact and trajectory of the pandemic, including graphs and statistics. While Gaylene Barnes links her complaint to the Whole Truth series, the graph at the centre of her complaint was in a more general report about Covid-19 which Stuff regularly updates with the latest data from the Ministry of Health (MoH).

3. Ms Barnes makes a complaint about Stuff’s publication of a Covid-19 graph and its heading. The graph compares rates of hospitalisation for those non-vaccinated, double dosed and boosted. Ms Barnes links her complaint to the breaching of 4 Media Council principles, namely, Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; Comment and Fact; Headlines and Captions; and Photographs and Graphics.

The Complaint

4. Ms Barnes complains that a graph titled, Covid-19: Hospitalisation rates among unvaccinated cases is higher than that of cases with two or more vaccine doses is misleading, suggesting that “it presents technically manipulated data that could mislead readers.” The graph measures hospitalisations per 100 confirmed cases by vaccination status. The three groups being unvaccinated, two doses and three doses. Ms Barnes believes that a more honest representation would have been to add the two and three doses together in one line and that this would show double the number of hospitalisations of those vaccinated which would more equal the number of unvaccinated hospitalisations. Ms Barnes states that MOH does not provide the level of data in its daily updates to give the insight that Stuff has applied to the graph.
 
5. More broadly Ms Barnes expresses her concern about the level of data on Covid-19 provided by the Ministry of Health which she believes leads to different groups, presumably the media, cherry picking the data “in a way that suits their narrative.” She is particularly unhappy with MOH’s method of reporting Covid-19 hospitalisations without any distinction between being hospitalised with Covid-19 or due to Covid-19.
 
6. Ms Barnes believes that Stuff is publicly funded and therefore has an increased responsibility to “to investigate more fully and present a balanced, less technically manipulated series of graphs.” She also notes that a commentator on the same day as the graph’s publication reported that the Covid19 hospitalisations were, “No dose-7 and Fully and Boosted-102”, implying that the raw data is a more accurate and her preferred representation of Covid-19 hospitalisations.

The Response

7. On 13 May 2022, with the Subject heading Potential Complaint about The Whole Truth to Media Council, Ms Barnes emailed Stuff asking for detail about the cohort definitions in the graph in question, why the two and three doses had not been combined and why Stuff had not presented data on ICU cases. Responding on the next working day Stuff answered all of Ms Barnes questions and sought clarification on what she meant when she said the matter of "This does not seem to tally with MOH figures".

8. Ms Barnes responded that she could not see how Stuff were able to draw the conclusions in the graph when MOH did not provide the relevant data in their daily reports.  The Stuff editor responded immediately with a clear outline of how Stuff used available data on vaccination rates and hospitalisation numbers to calculate the comparative rates of Covid-19 hospitalisations. In this response there was also an acknowledgement that “15 per cent of hospitalisations are in the unvaccinated and 76 per cent are in the partially or fully” but that this does not equate to a hospitalisation rate.

9. After this response from Stuff Ms Barnes submitted her complaint to the Council on 16 May 2022. Stuff replied addressing all of the comments and concerns raised by Ms Barnes with a comprehensive explanation of how comparative rates are determined from raw data, therefore asserting the accuracy of the published graph and its heading. The Editor also pointed out that in her final comment Ms Barnes mistakenly referenced a graph on a similar subject but not published by Stuff.

The Discussion

10. While Ms Barnes expressed concern about the reporting of Covid-19 by Stuff and the media in general, her specific complaint is about the accuracy of a graph and its heading published by Stuff. For Ms Barnes complaint to be upheld on Principles 1, 4, 6 and 11 the deductions behind the graph would need to be wrongly calculated and presented.

11. The purpose of the graph in question is to show a comparative of hospitalisations of those vaccinated and those not. It separates the vaccinated into those with two and those with three doses to examine any benefits from having the third dose. The graph shows that those with three doses of the vaccine have slightly lower hospitalisation rates than those with two doses, but both are just over 1 per 100 in the period 31 January to 24 May. While there were higher numbers of hospitalisations for those unvaccinated in February these numbers have evened out from around February to 24 May at an average of just over 2 per hundred hospitalised.

12. Ms Barnes suggests that the two vaccinated cohorts should be combined and that this would double the number and rate of those vaccinated who were hospitalised. It would double the number but not the rate. The rate is a percentage so to get a combined rate there would be a much greater number(denominator) within this combined cohort therefore resulting in a similar rate to that presented in the graph. Ms Barnes complaint of inaccuracy, misrepresentation and technical manipulation are unfounded. 

13. Ms Barnes would prefer to see raw data comparatives which would show a much lesser number of hospitalisations of those who are unvaccinated than vaccinated, as 95% New Zealanders (of the qualifying age) are vaccinated. The use of raw data would not show the comparative between cohorts, in this case the impact of Covid on those who are vaccinated as opposed to those who are not.

14. The Council sees no evidence that Stuff received any funding for the article containing the discussed graph.  

15. On the basis that the graph and heading in question is accurate and that the wider body of information presented by Stuff on the issue of Covid-19 appears to be well-informed and considered, the Media Council does not uphold this complaint.

Decision: The complaint is not upheld

Council members considering the complaint were the Hon Raynor Asher (Chair) Judi Jones, Rosemary Barraclough, Hank Schouten, Alison Thom, Jonathan Mackenzie, Craig Cooper, Marie Shroff, Richard Pamatatau, Ben France-Hudson, Tim Watkin.

 

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