JACQUELINE CAVANAGH AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD
Case Number: 2669
Council Meeting: JUNE 2018
Verdict: Upheld in Part
Publication: New Zealand Herald
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Jacqueline Cavanagh has complained about the online version of an article of 16 April 2018, which appeared in the online news section of theNew Zealand Herald (nzherald.co.nz).
The piece was entitled “Jacqui de Ruiter: Where are the women in abortion law-reform discussion?” The author was credited at the end of the online article as national president of Voice for Life. (The article also appeared in print, presented slightly differently, with a clear indication of its status as comment.)
The complaint was upheld on Principles 4 & 5.
The complaint was not upheld on Principle 1, with two Council members dissenting
The complainant takes issue with the following part of the online article, in particular the third sentence: “Some women may find relief in their abortions and recover quickly. But many suffer. They can experience pain or have complications which leave them infertile, suffer mental and emotional issues, mourn the child, even become suicidal.” In the complainant’s view, the article’s author treats this assertion as though there is general truth to it, when it is false, by implying that serious harms happen regularly enough to be of actual concern. The complainant cites multiple sources of evidence and research to support her view that, in relation to serious harms from abortion “infertility is basically unheard of, and mental health problems are only tangentially connected”. The complainant is very concerned that author’s claims are alarmist and therefore potentially risky for women who read it.
The complainant points out that the article was included in the news section of the onlineHerald, rather than in the opinion section. The complainant remains unconvinced of theHerald’s arguments below, and says media companies need to fact check, and remain open minded and vigilant. She hopes theHerald will not fall into the trap of reporting the claims of both sides without testing the claims made by each.
David Rowe, Senior Newsroom Editor for the New Zealand Herald responded. He says the article is presented as the views of one person, and Jacqui de Ruiter’s stated role as president of Voice for Life indicates her stance on the abortion issue. The parts complained of contain controversial elements, but the editor believes the article as a whole is not alarmist and provides a valid viewpoint in the abortion debate. In response to the initial complaint the editor apologised for the concern caused; said in future coverage the Herald would be mindful of the issues raised by the complainant; and offered a right of reply by way of a letter to the editor. The editor notes that research claims are sometimes conflicting, and theHerald cannot be expert on every issue.
The editor also notes that the author is named in the headline: “Jacqui de Ruiter: Where are the women in abortion law-reform discussion?” He believes this points the reader towards understanding that the article is the opinion of one person.
The Council has considered the complaint under principles of comment and fact; columns, opinions, blogs and letters; and accuracy, fairness and balance.
The Council’s Principles most relevant to this complaint provide as follows: in the preamble, “Distinctions between fact, on the one hand, and conjecture, opinion or comment, must be maintained”; in Principle 4, “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. Material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate.” In Principle 5, “Opinion, whether newspaper column or internet blog, must be clearly identified as such unless a column, blog or other expression of opinion is widely understood to be the writer’s own opinions.”
Both complainant and respondent agree the article is an opinion piece on a highly controversial topic. The author was named in the header, and her position as president of Voice for Life was in the footer. However, the article was placed in the news section of the online Herald, not in the opinion section, and was not marked “opinion”. Opinion pieces published in print commonly appear on the editorial or op-ed pages, which helps clearly to identify them as comment. In online publication more care is required to allow the reader to distinguish news from opinion and comment.
Elements of the part of the article complained of are of questionable accuracy. TheHerald itself says it does not take issue with the research, which clearly counters the author’s claims about “many” women suffering harms arising from abortion.
The Council cannot be expert on every complex topic, such as abortion, that is the subject of a complaint. However, we note the complainant has provided respected sources (such as the UK National Health Service and the US Mayo Clinic websites) readily available on the Internet, to back up her belief that the sentence at issue contains important inaccuracies. There are also some assertions in the sentence that are matters of opinion rather than fact. But what is clear is that the article was an opinion piece containing general assertions about the prevalence of some serious harms from abortion, which were at best arguable, or at worst factually inaccurate.
In spite of this, the article was published in the news section of the online Herald, and was not clearly differentiated up front for the reader as an opinion piece. The only indication given that the article was opinion, apart from the author’s name, was the mention of Voice for Life at the very end. The Council notes that a name by-line, of itself, is not a reliable indicator that a piece is opinion, as name by-lines are now commonly used on news articles. It would not be “widely understood” by the casual reader, simply from the name of the author and her organisation (neither of whom appear to be widely known) that this was an opinion piece rather than a factual news story.
The Council does not uphold on balance and fairness, given that the abortion controversy is a long running one, generating frequent media coverage on both sides of the debate.The article complained of was itself a response to an April 6Herald piece by the National President of ALRANZ Abortion Rights Aotearoa.
For similar reasons, the Council by a majority does not uphold on accuracy. It does not assess medical or scientific research for its validity and it is aware that much evidence, of varying degrees of credibility, has been presented in the course of the debate about abortion. In this case the writer’s views on the potential effects of abortion on a woman’s health are somewhat generally stated and are lacking in detail or authority.The Council is of the view that in the context of the debate, there is sufficient accurate material available to the public to allow the formation of an informed opinion.
There is nothing to prevent a publication from placing an opinion piece in the news section. But if such a course is adopted by an editor the piece must be clearly labelled “Opinion” or “Comment.”
The Council has found on many occasions that opinion pieces must be clearly labelled. It is not enough that the link takes a reader to “Comment”. What is required is that the story itself is clearly labelled opinion.
The complaint is upheld on Principle 4, Comment and Fact, and Principle 5 Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters
By a majority, the complaint is not upheld on Principle 1, in relation to accuracy. Members in favour of upholding on this aspect ie dissenting from the majority opinion not to uphold, were Hank Schouten and Marie Shroff.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen (Chairman), Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tracy Watkins.