GRACE WALLACE AGAINST THE WAIKATO TIMES/STUFF
Case Number: 3246
Council Meeting: MARCH 2022
Publication: Waikato Times
Ruling Categories: Unfair Coverage
1. Grace Wallace complains an article published by the Waikato Times/Stuff about the rare genetic condition she has, and her IVF journey to
avoid passing it on to her children, is drastically different to the story she thought she was agreeing to. She claims multiple Media
Council principles have been breached, including Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, and Discrimination and Diversity. Ms Wallace feels
gratuitous emphasis has been placed on her skin condition for ‘clickbait’, when she was hoping the story would be more strongly angled on
raising awareness about pre-implantation genetic diagnosis testing (PGD testing).
2. The article was published in the Waikato Times and on the Stuff website on Sunday February 6, 2022 and carried the headline ‘Life with too much skin: Grace Wallace lives with a rare condition and conceived through IVF to avoid ‘passing it on’.
3. Ms Wallace is a mother-of-two with epidermolytic hyperkeratosis – a rare condition which she describes as her skin production being ‘on overdrive’. Because of the 50/50 chance of children inheriting the condition, she and her husband opted for IVF.
4. The article outlines what day-to-day life is like for Ms Wallace with the condition and shares the IVF journey she took to conceive her two sons. It also mentions what life was like for Ms Wallace as a child, and why she didn’t want her own children to experience some of the more challenging aspects that come with her skin condition.
5. Ms Wallace’s main complaint is that the published article is very different to what she was expecting; focusing - she believes - more on her skin condition than on her IVF journey. She says she felt like a ‘freak show’ with the way she was described, and felt the article portrayed her to be ‘helpless’ and ‘unable to care for her family’. She describes the headline as ‘heart-breaking’. Ms Wallace says she spoke in depth about IVF, and in particular PGD testing during the interview, but didn’t feel that was given fair prominence in the article. Ms Wallace questions why she wasn’t consulted on the angle before publication.
6. Ms Wallace acknowledges that the reason for her undertaking IVF is because of her skin condition, and that the two are interwoven. However, she feels the article could have been more balanced, focusing more on PGD testing and including practical information around funding options and availability of testing.
7. Ms Wallace says the publication of the article has had a huge effect on her life and she’s concerned about how it could impact her future career prospects, making her look ‘dependent on her husband’ and ‘incapable of caring for myself and my children’. She suggests that in future, if writing about people with disabilities, the publication could send them a draft copy to proofread before publishing.
8. Ms Wallace claims the article breached six Media Council principles; Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, Comment and Fact, Confidentiality, Conflicts of Interest, Discrimination and Diversity, Headlines and Captions.
9. Chief News Director Wayne Timmo responds to the complaint on behalf of Stuff/Waikato Times and stands by the way the story was produced from start to finish. He says Ms Wallace was happy to be interviewed, consented willingly to sharing her story, and was open about her condition. He says her skin condition was the very reason she had undertaken IVF, and so it’s not unreasonable for the journalist to have focused on that motivating factor.
10. Mr Timmo says the main issue with this complaint is one of emphasis. He says despite Ms Wallace’s contention that it does not, the story does include information about PGD testing. He says it’s a strong plank of the story and is even included in the headline. He says her assumption that it should be the sole angle of the story however is hers alone.
11. Mr Timmo says it was a surprise to receive a complaint from Ms Wallace about the story and was disappointing. He believes the average person would view Ms Wallace as a strong person from reading the article but accepts that’s not how she sees it. He says it’s unfortunate they’ve ended up in this position, and he’s sorry Ms Wallace feels aggrieved by her experience with Stuff. Mr Timmo says there was never any intent to deceive her into a story and they had no inkling she was upset with the direction it was headed. If they had known, he says it would have been discussed with her and some sort of resolution reached.
12. Despite that, Mr Timmo says Stuff does not unpublish stories just because a subject in them is unhappy with the final result. He says they produce stories for the average reader, not to please the subjects.
13. In terms of the angle of the story, Mr Timmo says while Ms Wallace may have preferred more emphasis on the IVF side of her journey, her skin condition is a major precursor to her IVF decision. He says her rare condition is the reason the story was done, not just because she chose to conceive through IVF.
14. In terms of the headline, Mr Timmo says it covers both the IVF angle and summarises Ms Wallace’s skin condition. He says ‘Life with too much skin’ is an interesting hook to pique readers’ interest but is not inaccurate or insensitive.
15. Ms Wallace is unhappy with the final article because she was expecting the story to be angled more on her IVF journey than her skin condition. This is a fair complaint, as it appears she was led to believe she was being interviewed for the purposes of sharing her IVF journey, not shining a light on her rare condition. The final article has made her condition the focus. Nearly every sentence mentions it, or how it impacts her life, whereas only a handful refer to her IVF journey.
16. The principle at play here is Accuracy, Fairness and Balance. The story is accurate, there is no dispute there, so the issue is whether it is fair and balanced. The article does give brief mention to why Ms Wallace and her husband opted to conceive through IVF with PGD testing, and it is mentioned high up in the second line. It is also accepted from both parties that her condition and her IVF journey are interwoven and one can’t be mentioned without the other. However, it is undeniable this article emphasises Ms Wallace’s condition over her IVF journey. Readers are left better informed about epidermolytic hyperkeratosis than they are about IVF with PGD testing. It goes into great detail about how Ms Wallace’s life is negatively affected by her condition but doesn’t mention anything about funding or the availability of genetic testing for others who may be in similar situations. The article does not provide a fair portrayal of Ms Wallace and is not a fair account of why IVF with PGD testing was the best option for her family. The complaint issue is fairness.
17. In terms of principle 6, Headlines and Captions, Ms Wallace feels the headline is gratuitous. She says starting with 'Life with too much skin' makes her condition the focus from the outset. When read in totality however, the headline clearly mentions both her skin condition and her IVF journey. It is understandable a news outlet would use a summation of this condition to attract a reader's attention and the mention is not gratuitous.
18. The third principle relevant is Discrimination and Diversity. This principle makes it clear gratuitous emphasis should not be placed on a physical disability. While the Council agrees that Ms Wallace’s skin condition has been over-emphasised, it is still relevant to the story, and does not feel the mention has been gratuitous.
19. In terms of the other principles mentioned; the article is clearly a straight-forward news piece and does not include any comment or opinion, there are no conflicts of interest, and there has been no breach of confidentiality with Ms Wallace consenting willingly to the interview and sharing her story openly.
20. As indicated the council is concerned however with aspects of the way the story was approached and gathered. While not privy to the full discourse that predated the interview, it would seem Ms Wallace did enter the interview with different expectations. Ms Wallace’s contact details were passed on to one of the journalists by her midwife, who recommended her as a case study looking specifically at her IVF journey. A text provided to the Media Council between Ms Wallace and the journalist confirms this. That initial contact only refers to wanting to share Ms Wallace’s IVF story and does not mention her rare skin condition at all. From this correspondence it is understandable Ms Wallace would think she was consenting to an interview about her IVF journey, for an article focused on that. Unfortunately, the article did not focus on Ms Wallace’s IVF journey. It focused on her excess skin condition, obviously a matter of great vulnerability and anguish for her. This was unfair and a breach of Principle 1.
21. The Council would note journalists should take care when approaching sources – especially those who may be considered more vulnerable – in that they’re transparent with their intentions and the treatment they’re planning to give that person’s story. In saying that, stories evolve through the interview process and its important journalists maintain the freedom to follow where a story leads, regardless of where it starts. Mr Timmo argues that the angle of the story presented itself during the interview process, when Ms Wallace openly discussed her skin condition and the medical issues she’s faced. He says the drivers of behaviour and the very human tales behind them are what makes compelling and interesting journalism, and that that’s what the reporter has rightly produced here. A media organisation must maintain that independence and freedom to change a story’s angle to best serve its audience, but where Stuff/Waikato Times has failed, is in not communicating that decision clearly enough to Ms Wallace before publication. It was unfair that she was effectively blind-sided by what was published.
22. In her complaint, Ms Wallace suggests perhaps in future the publication could send a draft for proofreading when covering stories relating to disabilities. While an understandable suggestion, this would not be a solution to avoid a similar situation. It is a journalist's job to build trust with an interviewee, to make them feel comfortable enough to share their story, and then honour that relationship by telling their story truthfully, respectfully and sensitively. It is imperative that journalists can write news articles free of influence from their interviewees to maintain objectivity. Letting an interviewee decide the angle of a story, or have input in its writing, would jeopardise this impartiality and sow mistrust with the audience. Is the story factual, or is it being pushed for a purpose to suit the subject's needs?
23. As a final note, it is a shame Ms Wallace has had this experience. It will have eroded her trust in journalists, which is disappointing as her story is an important one to share. She is a brave person who should be commended for the steps she’s taken to protect her children and sharing her experience will no doubt have provided hope and guidance to others in similar situations. Her actions and the courage she’s displayed in sharing her story are deserving of recognition.
24. The complaint is upheld under Principle 1 Fairness.
Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon. Raynor Asher (chair) Hank Schouten, Tim Watkins, Jo Cribb, Marie Shroff, Liz Brown, Katrina Bennett, Reine Vaai and Richard Pamatatu.
Council member Jonathan MacKenzie withdrew from the discussion because of a conflict of interest.