Case Number: 2974

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2020

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories:

The Complaint

Helen Heath has complained about an online story published in the World section of theNew Zealand Herald’s website - nzherald.co.nz.

The story is headlined Covid 19 coronavirus: Why South Australia locked down - New terrifying virus strain revealed.The story ran on November 18, 2020.

The story is based on a press conference hosted in the main by South Australia’s Chief Health Officer Professor Nicola Spurrier and details the reasons behind a full six-day lockdown announced on that day.

The complainant says the article and heading is “inaccurate, misleading and inflammatory” because the virus strain in the story “is in fact the dominant strain worldwide” had been circulating for the past six months and was therefore not new.

Ms Heath said although the virus strain was more contagious “it is far less deadly” and therefore it was inaccurate to describe it as either “new” or “terrifying”.

“It really is grossly irresponsible to be publishing articles which appear to deliberately mislead the public on the facts regarding Covid-19.

Ms Heath also complained that the story didn’t identify the specific strain of the disease by name.

The Response

Responding for the NZH, deputy head of news Oskar Alley said the article in question was written by news.com.au, an Australian based content partner.

Mr Alley explained that the article was based on comments made by the Australian state’s equivalent of NZ’s director-general of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield.

Professor Spurrier told reporters there was “a high level of concern at a new strain of the virus in the state”, characterised by “an acute infection risk, a short incubation period and a higher proportion of asymptomatic patients”.

Mr Alley said she told reporters that officials were gravely concerned at how quickly people exposed to the virus became infectious and that a new “generation” of cases was cropping up around every three days.

Mr Alley pointed out that the article did not say that the strain was new to the world “merely that the state’s leading public health official had said it was new to South Australia.”

He said Australian news media widely reported the development as being a “new” strain of Covid-19 as did news.com.au and South Australian premier Steven Marshall had described the virus as a “particularly sneaky...highly contagious strain” and said: ”The elements of this are quite frightening. It’s quite different than anything we’ve seen before.”

Mr Alley said: “given health officials' grave concern at the new infections and the state premier describing the new strain as quite frightening the article’s use of the word terrifying is quite accurate.”

“The article fully complies with Principle 1 as it is based entirely on the public press conference held by Professor Spurrier and comments made publicly by Premier Marshall.

Mr Alley said not including the scientific name of the strain mentioned in the story was a decision made by news.com.au and he noted that New Zealand media had also not included the scientific names of various strains of the virus in news stories.

“Our position is that the key messaging from health officials’ press conference is to communicate what the public needs to do to keep safe and to prevent the spread of infection.

“In that regard I submit there is nothing inaccurate or inflammatory in the news.com.au article.”

The Complainant’s Second Response

In reply to Mr Alley’s response Ms Heath repeated her assertions that the strain was not new and less likely to cause death therefore it was not new or terrifying.

She said it was “irresponsible journalism that failed to adequately inform”.

She also said nowhere in the article was Professor Spurrier quoted as saying the strain was new to South Australia.

“Mr Alley repeatedly claiming so doesn’t make it true”.

The Discussion

The complaint will be considered under NZMC’s Principle 1 - Accuracy, Fairness and Balance and Principle 6, Headlines and Captions.

As Mr Alley has argued, and the Council agrees, the story is a straightforward report of a South Australian Government hosted press conference.

The intention of the press conference was to convey important information to the public about the latest and dramatic developments in the Australian state’s Covid crisis.

The story does that by going into detail about the reasons behind the lockdown, the threat that the virus strain poses and its characteristics.

The Council doesn’t agree with Ms Heath’s contention that the story was in any way inaccurate, misleading or inflammatory as the story itself was, as Mr Alley says, a “bog standard” account of a press conference.

However, the Council notes Ms Heath’s concern that nowhere in the story is it stated that the virus strain is new to Australia or South Australia in spite of Mr Alley’s assertion otherwise.

The Council notes that the virus was described as new by Professor Spurrier in other published news stories but not in the one complained about by Ms Heath.

The story doesn't explicitly state that the strain is new but it is implied in the second paragraph which states that the lockdown was “a bid to combat the latest Covid-19 wave”. In the next paragraph Professor Nicola Spurrier talks about the characteristics of “this particular strain” of the virus again giving the impression that it is new or a novel strain.

The Council feels that the reader would get a fair impression from the context of the story that the virus strain was perceived by the authorities to be new to the region. The story goes into detail about how the strain behaves differently from previous outbreaks and why authorities are so concerned, leaving a reader with the impression that the strain is new.

Turning to the headline the Council can find no breach of Principle 6, which states in part that headlines should “accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to cover”.

Ms Heath contends that the strain has been in existence around the world for at least six months so it’s not new, but regardless it appears that the strain was new to Australia and that’s how readers would have understood the headline.

The Council believes that the word “terrifying” in the context of the headline is acceptable if a little overblown. Perhaps “frightening” would have been a more temperate choice but nevertheless readers would be left in little doubt that health authorities were very concerned about the virus’ spread and the speed of transmission. Whether that is terrifying or not is very much in the eye of the beholder but crucially the Council does not believe that the use of the word amounts to spreading misinformation or causing undue alarm among the public.

The Council also notes that several dictionaries define “terrifying” as “very frightening” while the State Premier Steven Marshall was reported in other media describing the strain as “very sneaky” and “quite frightening”. The Council believes that although the headline writer could have chosen a better descriptor, terrifying was close enough to the thrust of the story and therefore Principle 6 has not been breached.


The complaint is not upheld

Media Council members considering the complaint were Liz Brown (Chair), Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.


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