JAN RIVERS AGAINST TVNZ

Case Number: 3276

Council Meeting: JUNE 2022

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: TVNZ

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact

Overview

Summary

[1] On 2 April 2022 One News published a story on its website headlined Misinformation: Down the rabbit hole, and back. 

[2] It began by saying the misinformation that fuelled the Wellington occupation at Parliament was “alive and well in Kiwi communities”. Popular theories at the protest included anti-vaccination beliefs, claims the Prime Minister’s fiancé was in jail, and the belief that Covid was not real. It asked: “So how do Kiwis fall down the rabbit hole, and how do they get out?” The reporter had spoken to some “who’ve been there”, the story said. 

[3] The story included the experiences of four people. One was influenced by a friend who held conspiracy theories including that there were “lizard people”, and others held anti-vaccination and anti-fluoridation beliefs. 

[4] One of those featured, Alison, had a stepson who was prescribed puberty blockers. She said she searched online and became anxious about her stepson, reading material that suggested puberty blockers were dangerous, that medical campaigners who exposed the dangers were being silenced and the number of people de-transitioning was being hidden. The story noted that puberty blockers were legal in New Zealand and quoted the Mayo Clinic as saying they had benefits for children with gender dysphoria. 

[5] The four people quoted in the story were asked how they came to change their views. Alison said her online research led her to Breitbart, a far right US news outlet that spread misinformation about climate change and other issues. She realised they were driven by a religious, conservative agenda, and appealed to people’s emotions. She also said she saw that her stepson’s life had improved once he started puberty blockers.

The Complaint

The complaint 

 [6] Jan Rivers complained under Principle One: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, and Principle Four: Comment and Fact, saying the story was presented as a moral tale about people who realising they had been captured by conspiracy theories and had been able to take a broader, healthier view. 

 [7] Alongside three well-known examples of conspiracy beliefs, were the views of the stepmother, Alison, who spoke about puberty blockers and becoming anxious upon encountering information that said they were harmful, before reconsidering her position. Ms Rivers said Alison was not mistaken. Norway and Sweden had changed their advice on the safety of puberty blockers, the UK government had enlarged the scope of an existing investigation into their use, and other countries had changed their advice “because of the dangers”, Ms Rivers said. The sole evidence about safety presented in the story was from a Mayo Clinic report and there was insufficient evidence to say they were safe, she said.

 [8] The experience of Alison was presented as equivalent to those who held anti-vaccination and anti-fluoridation views, and those who believed a lizard race controlled the world. 

 [9] No explanation was provided about how Alison came to understand that what she was reading was misinformation. Although the article said puberty blockers were legal in New Zealand, legality was not synonymous with lack of harm as the use of DDT, lobotomies and thalidomide had shown. 

 [10] Ms Rivers said the evidence about whether puberty blockers were helpful was highly contested and outlined some of the ethical and health concerns about their use. She provided references to back up her claims, saying they supported the view that “to be sceptical about puberty blockers is not the same as endorsing misinformation”. 

 [11] “Perhaps the reason your anonymous parent was frightened is because the situation is indeed very concerning and the science is indeed uncertain,” Ms Rivers said.

The Response

The response

 [12] TVNZ replied that they did not believe the article was inaccurate, unbalanced or unfair. The section about Alison was a small part of the article, which was designed to look at the different complexions “misinformation” could have, and the different ways it could affect people, TVNZ said.

 [13] The article acknowledged there was controversy around puberty blockers but did not set out to examine the arguments for or against. Similarly, one of the anecdotes dealt with fluoridation, but the story did not examine the issue of fluoridation in detail. The purpose of the article was to examine how exposure to a single or narrow perspective could distort an individual’s understanding of a complex or nuanced issue. 

 [14] The blogs Alison read appeared to paint an unrelentingly negative picture of puberty blockers, with no appreciation of the benefits they might offer. When Alison began considering different perspectives, she was able to see a positive change in her stepson that she had previously failed to recognise, TVNZ said. 

 [15] Misinformation refers not only to incorrect information but also the impact of bias, TVNZ said. There may have been credibility to some of the material she was reading, but it came from only one, aggressively targeted, perspective. She realised many of the arguments presented came from a “white, religious, conservative agenda”. This was Alison’s experience, irrespective of the arguments that may exist about puberty blockers, which the complainant clearly subscribed to. Alison benefited from a wider range of perspectives. 

 [16] The complainant had not identified any material inaccuracies in the article, and there was no basis to suggest it sought to mislead or was unbalanced or unfair. 

 [17] There was no breach of Principle 4: Comment and Fact, because the article was clearly presented as Alison’s experience and opinions, TVNZ said. 
 
Further correspondence

 [18] In her final comment Ms Rivers disagreed that the TVNZ article had acknowledged that there was a debate about the use of puberty blockers. It said there was a debate overseas, without providing any other information other than that puberty blockers are legal in New Zealand. She did not want to see a serious issue “wrongly presented” as a conspiracy and as a result of maladaptive thinking. Ms Rivers also raised the issue of what she said was a pattern of misinformation and poor reporting on issues of gender medicine by TVNZ, but as this was not raised in the original formal complaint, the Council considers it is outside the scope of the current complaint and has not considered it. 


The Discussion

Discussion and decision

 [19] The introduction to the story sets out that what is being examined is misinformation and “going down the rabbit hole”. However, there were a range of different scenarios presented, some more clearly in the nature of a conspiracy theory and others, such as anti-vaccination beliefs, that go against the scientifically accepted view.

 [20] The Council can understand the complainant’s assertion that the puberty blockers question was different to the views of those who believe in a “lizard race” or that Covid-19 was not real. The story could have made it clearer that this case study was about being affected by very one-sided views that Alison believed were biased, rather than falling for an outlandish conspiracy theory. It was arguably unwise to include an issue where the science is uncertain alongside issues where it is not. 

[21] However this was Alison’s story, presented as her experience. She believed that being exposed to a one-dimensional view through online sources did her a disservice, and that realizing there was another side to the debate had been beneficial. It was legitimate to report this as one person’s experience of navigating a fraught issue with information found online. 

 [22] The Media Council agrees with TVNZ that an examination of the pros and cons of puberty blockers was outside the scope of the story and was not necessary. There was some acknowledgement that there was debate about puberty blockers, whereas in some of the other issues covered, for example the “lizard people” conspiracy theory, it was apparent that no reasonable person could hold the views under consideration. 

 [23] In summary, the story about Alison was clearly presented as her experience and opinion, so there is no breach of Principle 4, which says a clear distinction should be drawn between comment and fact. The Council can find no inaccuracy in the story, which did not have to cover the puberty blockers issue in detail, and there was some recognition of the controversy surrounding the use of the drugs, so there is no breach of Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance. 

 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, Marie Shroff, Richard Pamatatau, Ben France-Hudson, Tim Watkin and Craig Cooper.

 

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