GRAHAM MARSDEN AGAINST NEW ZEALAND LISTENER

Case Number: 3137

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2021

Verdict: Not Upheld

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Headlines and Captions
Photographs

Overview

1. Graham Marsden complains about an item published by the New Zealand Listener on August 21, 2021.He considers there was a breach of Media Council Principles 1 (Accuracy, fairness and balance), 4 (Comment and fact), 6 (Headlines and captions) and 11 (Photographs and graphics). 

 

2. The Media Council does not uphold the complaint.


Background

3. On August 21, 2021, the New Zealand Listener published an item headed Sitting Ducks The closure of our borders is making us more susceptible to newly evolving viruses unrelated to Covid-19. The article discusses the outbreak of RSV virus cases during the winter, quoting a virologist as saying there was an unusually high number of cases and more than usually severe effects in older people. It mentions the possibility that the virus has evolved since the last outbreak, in 2019, and that as a result of protective measures put in place to counter Covid-19, the New Zealand population is now more susceptible to it. It goes on to question whether the same may apply to other viruses in the future. The final part of the article is about developments in vaccine technology.

 

4. The article was illustrated with a photograph of an elderly woman lying in bed and clearly unwell, and a further photograph of a young girl apparently sneezing or coughing into her elbow.

The Complaint

5. Mr Marsden complains that while the article speculates that New Zealand’s Covid-19 strategy may have left the population increasingly susceptible to new and evolving viruses, the headline presents the speculation as fact. He says the use of the words “Sitting ducks” and the two photographs “give a further signal that there is some real danger outlined in the article”. 

 

6. Mr Marsden also complains about the accuracy of two specific statements in the article. These are “the vaccine technology being used for this pandemic has been around for ages”, and “What we didn’t know was how effective the vaccines were going to be, Now we know, there’s definitely the potential for this technology to be used more widely.”  He says the first mRNA vaccine has only had approvals (in the UK and USA) since December 2020 and accordingly the first statement is inaccurate. The term “around for ages” is used to convey the idea that the Covid-19 vaccine technology has a history of safety and efficacy when in fact it has received only emergency use approval. Regarding the second statement, he points out that vaccine trials are still in progress, having begun in April 2020, and that final trials are not due for completion until 2023.

 7. In commenting on the New Zealand Listener response to his complaint, Mr Marsden cited material from the British Medical Journal in support of his views
He also queried the accuracy of a statement in the response where there is a reference to “full approval” of the Pfizer vaccine.

The Response

8. Karyn Scherer, the editor of the New Zealand Listener, initially responded briefly to Mr Marsden’s complaint. She said the article was general in nature, making the point that mRNA science has been around for a long time and that “the large population roll-out in response to the Covid-19 pandemic presents scientists with an opportunity to learn how the same technology can be harnessed to manage a variety of other conditions. It was not trying to examine the issue in any more scientific depth than that”. Ms Scherer did not at this point address the complaint about the headline.

 9. In a further response, Ms Scherer submitted that the headline (Sitting Ducks) and the standfirst, which is the paragraph accompanying the headline, should be read together, and that together they are an accurate reflection of the content of the article. She noted that the article was published at a time when there was an abnormally high number of severe RSV cases in New Zealand, leading to discussion of the topical issue that isolated populations become more vulnerable to evolving viruses once the isolation ends.  In her view, there was sufficient content in the item to justify the headline and standfirst. She cites in particular the opening paragraph, which says, “There is a concern . . . we will see a rebound, with the arrival of new variants of common viruses . . .”; a quote from a virologist that refers to the reintroduction of the RSV virus from Australia: and the mention of flu vaccination statistics showing a lower level of vaccination than in in 2020.

 10.  She also added to the response to the complaint of inaccuracy, saying in the first instance that the complainant had failed to distinguish between the existence of mRNA vaccine technology and the application of that technology to create a specific vaccine for Covid-19. A clear distinction of this nature is drawn in the article. She also provided references to show that the concept of mRNA   vaccines dates back at least to 1995, with the use of mRNA in biology considerably earlier.

 11. To the second element in the complaint of inaccuracy, Ms Scherer says that “the fact that trials are still under way for the Covid-19 vaccine does not mean the statement is misleading or misinformation, rather it reflects the fast-track process that health authorities have approved.” She refers to publicly available statistics on the effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine and submits that they provide a substantial foundation for the statement that there is potential for the mRNA technology to be used more widely.

The Decision

12. Media Council Principle 6 requires headlines, sub-headings and captions to accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to cover. In consider this complaint under Principle 6, the Media Council accepts that the headline and standfirst should be read together – indeed it would be difficult in practice to read one without the other. The issue is whether the firm statement that the border closure is [Media Council emphasis] making us more susceptible to new viruses can be supported by the content of the article, which appears to be more speculative.

 13. This is a borderline case, and the content of the article would be more accurately conveyed by saying that the closure of the borders may be making us more susceptible to newly evolving viruses. However this does not necessarily mean that the existing headline is inaccurate. There is a cautious note in the remarks of the virologist quoted in the article, as is to be expected from a researcher operating under scientific principles that require a high standard of proof, However, the cumulative effect of the evidence she puts forward is to show that it is very likely indeed that one effect of the border closure is a population that has not been exposed to newly evolved viruses and is therefore vulnerable to them. On balance, the Media Council finds that this is sufficient to support the statement in the headline.

 14. In considering the accuracy of the article, it is important to understand that it was not written for a technical publication but rather as a short summary of the science for a general readership. Such a summary should not mislead by omission or commission, but it need not cover every relevant detail. 

 15. Mr Marsden has questioned the accuracy of Ms Scherer’s statement about the approval of the Pfizer vaccine but as neither this statement nor anything similar to it appear in the article in question, the Media Council will not address this issue.

 16. It seems that Mr Marsden and Ms Scherer are talking past each other in assessing the accuracy of the material about the length of time mRNA vaccine technology has been around. It is quite true that this technology has only recently been applied to vaccines against the Covid-19 virus as the virus itself has only recently been recognised. However it is also true that the technology has been studied and worked on for a very considerable time.   The emergence of the Covid virus and the recognition of the threat it posed resulted in greatly increased funding for mRNA vaccine research and consequent advances in the technology but this does not mean that the technology itself is recent. The Media Council considers it is accurate to say the mRNA technology is not new. In addition, it does not accept Mr Marsden’s view that the term “around for ages” indicates a history of safety and efficacy for the Covid-19 vaccine when very clearly that vaccine was recently developed to meet a recent need.

 17. Mr Marsden also considers it inaccurate to say that we now know how effective the vaccines are and that there is the potential for the technology to be used more widely. While he correctly says that vaccine trials are still in progress and no doubt there is still much to be learnt about the vaccines, it is also very clear that much is now known about their effectiveness. There is certainly enough knowledge to support the statement that there is potential for the technology to be used more widely.

 18. Mr Marsden has also cited Media Council principles 4 and 11. The Council can see no application for principle 4 in this case, and Mr Marsden has offered no comment or evidence in support of any complaint under this principle. So far as principle 11 is concerned, the Council can see no lack of care in the selection of the photographs illustrating the article. They appear to be generic photographs showing a sick older person in one instance, and a young person taking well-known preventive action in the other. Particularly as the outbreak of the RSV virus primarily affected the elderly and young people, both appear to be entirely appropriate.

 

Determination

19. The complaint is not upheld.

 

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Sandy Gill, Marie Shroff and Tim Watkin.

 

Ben France-Hudson took no part in the consideration of this complaint. Hank Schouten stood down to maintain the public member majority.12. 

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