JENNIFER SCOTT, SARAH HENDERSON, JANET BOGLE, REX LANDY AND HILARY OXLEY AGAINST NEWSHUB

Case Number: 3354

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2022

Decision: Upheld

Publication: Newshub TV3

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Children and Young People
Comment and Fact
Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters
Headlines and Captions
Discrimination and Diversity
Subterfuge
Corrections

Ruling Categories: Gender
Disinformation, Misinformation

Overview

1. On 19 October 2022, Newshub published a short article on its website headed Woman trespassed from Ministry of Social Development after getting upset over gender-inclusive poster. Ms Jennifer Scott, Ms Sarah Henderson, Ms Janet Bogle, Ms Rex Landy, and Ms Hilary Oxley complained about the article, variously saying it breached Principles:

(1)      Accuracy, Fairness and Balance

(3)      Children and Young People

(4)      Comment and fact

(5)      Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters

(6)      Headlines and Captions

(7)      Discrimination and Diversity

(9)      Subterfuge

(12)    Corrections


2. The complaint is upheld under Principle (12) for the delay and unsatisfactory correction but not upheld under the remaining Principles cited by the complainants.

The Article

3. The article covered an incident at the Ministry of Social Development’s (MSD) offices in Dunedin in which an unidentified woman was trespassed from the office. The article said the incident occurred after the woman became upset and angry about two posters in the office (a rainbow poster and one inviting people to tell staff their pronouns). The article said the woman posted a video online explaining she had asked why there was a poster promoting child sterilisation and males in female only spaces. The article said police had escorted her from the building and trespassed her as she was disorderly.

4. As well as covering the incident, the article included information about gender reassignment surgery and the use of puberty blockers, saying puberty blockers “was a safe and reversible medication used to halt the progress of potentially unwanted puberty-related physical changes.” The article also included a statement that the woman’s objections were “false arguments often used by anti-transgender people”. Newshub later removed the latter statement and added a reference to the Ministry of Health at the end of the statement on puberty blockers.  The amended article was headed (under the original main heading) “This story was amended on November 2 to remove a reference to false arguments used by anti-transgender people”.

The Complaint

5. The complainants raised issues under eight Media Council Principles (see paragraph (1) above) and Ms Scott identified herself as the woman in the article.

6. Under Principle (1) (Accuracy, Fairness and Balance), the complainants said it was not true to say that puberty blockers are safe and reversible. They said the Ministry of Health had removed advice to this effect from its website on 16 September 2022. Ms Henderson said puberty blockers inevitably lead to the child or teen transitioning to cross-sex hormones that do create permanent changes. Ms Scott said she had not been contacted to get her side of the story, and objected to the statement saying her arguments were “false arguments often used by anti-transgender people”.

7. Ms Henderson asked why organisations who advocated against sterilisation were not approached for comment to give balance to the article. Ms Bogle felt the article lacked balance by not referring to the growing body of evidence that puberty blockers are not safe and their reversibility is not proven. Ms Oxley said Newshub had strengthened its mistake about the safety and reversibility of puberty blockers by adding the reference to the Ministry of Health. Some of the complainants provided links to show endorsement of puberty blockers was not internationally universal.

8. Ms Oxley expressed her concern about MSD’s comment in the article that MSD wants “to provide services that reflect who people are, so they feel included”. She said this was where the falsity lies, saying a person’s biological sex was separate from their feelings and MSD’s inclusiveness was exclusory for those who believed biological sex was important, giving examples of that. She said the MSD’s posters “blur together the issues of lesbian, gay and bisexual people with the unrelated issues of trans, non-binary and other people which do not relate to their sexual orientation” and this was not fairly described in the article. She said she understood Ms Scott’s “distress and claim that these posters promote sterilisation of children and males being allowed into female-only spaces.” Ms Oxley said Newshub should have spoken to women’s organisations about whether they supported Ms Scott’s view, to give balance to the article.

9. Under Principle (3) (Children and Young Persons), the complainants said the interests of children and young people were not served by the article, saying it promoted widespread use of medications to stop children’s “natural puberty and places them at the risk of permanent harm” [emphasis in original].

10. Under Principle (4) (Comment and Fact), the complainants said Ms Scott did not make any negative statement about transgender people, her statements were not false statements, and Newshub’s journalists appeared to be basing their opinions on misinformation and presenting their opinions as fact.

11. Under Principle (5) (Columns, Blogs, Opinion and Letters), Ms Scott said as the article was not based on fact, it must be an opinion piece that was not identified as such. 

12. Under Principle (6) (Headlines and Captions), Ms Scott offered alternate headlines she thought would be more accurate, such as “Woman creates a scene in MSD building in order to protect Female Singe Sex spaces” or “woman trespassed from ministry of social development office in Dunedin after getting upset over a ‘tell us your pronouns poster”. Ms Scott said the headline Newshub used suggested she was simply upset over a poster, falsely characterised her as discriminatory, and would scare other women from raising the same issues.

13. Under Principle (7) (Discrimination and Diversity), some complainants said Newshub had elevated gender above other issues, such as mental health, age, the interests of tangata whenua, and other minority groups opposed to gendered ideas. This was claimed to be in breach of Principle 7’s requirement for publications to not “place gratuitous emphasis” on one category. The complainants also said Newshub had confused the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. The complainants felt the headline was discriminatory in referring to Ms Scott as “a woman upset” which suggested her concerns were “a silly thing and nothing to be upset about”.

14. While Ms Landy said her complaint also related to Principle (9) (Subterfuge), she did not provide information relevant to Principle (9).

15. Under Principle (12) (Corrections), Ms Scott asked for an amended and corrected article to be sent to a ‘suffragettes NZ’ email address, and for an apology that could be shared with the public of New Zealand. Ms Henderson felt the errors in the articles were significant requiring a correction with “fair prominence” along with an apology and right of reply. Ms Bogle objected to the bolded statement about the correction, suggesting it could be read to mean that the statement had been removed because the arguments were false and the people were anti-transgender. Ms Oxley said the errors needed a “proper and prominent retraction of the unfactual elements”, and apology to Ms Scott and chance to comment, and all women should receive an apology for the sexist headline.

The Response

16. After its initial review of the complaints, Newshub amended the story. At the start of the article, Newshub inserted in bold: “This story was amended on November 2 to remove a reference to false arguments used by anti-transgender people.” Newshub agreed more needed to be done in the article to differentiate between fact and comment, and so removed the statement about false arguments.

17. Despite the Ministry of Health’s website no longer saying puberty blockers were safe and reversible, Newshub said the Ministry of Health continued to endorse puberty blockers as safe. Newshub said the Ministry had endorsed guidelines from the Professional Association for Transgender Health Aoteoroa that say puberty blockers are considered to be fully reversible. Newshub amended the article to add reference to the Ministry of Health: “which is a safe and reversible medication used to halt the progress of potentially unwanted puberty-related physical changes, according to Ministry of Health guidance” [emphasis added].

18. In its response to the Media Council, Newshub said it had removed the statement about false arguments being used by anti-transgender people as it was an opinion that should have been attributed for it to be included. It said it would use this as a learning opportunity for its digital team to stress the importance of attributing opinions.

Final comments from complainants

19. In response to Newshub’s comments, Ms Scott and Ms Bogle noted Newshub had not addressed all the issues and Principles complained about. Ms Scott said:

News Hub and Media Council are BOTH responsible for inaccurate reporting and promoting harm towards
Children, young people, and Woman in New Zealand.

Children are being sterilised and the healthy breasts are being removed of young girls.

News Hub and Media Council CONTINUE to discriminate against ANYONE who is stating biological facts –
That Woman are Female, humans cannot change sex and it is abuse towards children to teach ‘gender identity’.
[emphasis in original]

20. Ms Bogle was concerned that in referencing the Ministry of Health, Newshub relied on an un-named source to claim the Ministry supported the safety and reversibility of puberty blockers. She noted the Professional Association of Transgender Health Aotearoa is a “known biased lobby group”. She continued to express her concerns about a lack of balance and the risk of harm to children and young people by promoting puberty blockers as safe and reversible.

21. Ms Oxley provided further comment on the anti-transgender sentence that Newshub had removed. She said Newshub had not addressed the other issues she raised on Principle (1), nor the issue of whether the headline was appropriate.

22. Ms Landy reiterated her concerns about men being able to choose their gender meaning they could go into female-only spaces such as changing rooms.

The Discussion

23. The Newshub article was a relatively short article about a woman (now known to be Ms Scott) objecting to messaging on posters and being trespassed from MSD offices in Dunedin. The complainants said the headline positioned Ms Scott as ‘silly’ and objected to the article’s endorsement of puberty blockers, and more generally, the issue of gender fluidity being normalised. They also objected to the statement that the arguments Ms Scott used were typical of those who were anti-transgender and “false”, which Newshub accepted was inappropriate and has removed from the article.  That was the correct thing for Newshub to do, given that this was a news article, and contained an apparent  statement of fact about issues on which there are different views.

Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance

24. Principle (1) says:

Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance,
and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission
or omission. In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must
be given to the opposition view.

Exceptions may apply for long-running issues where every side of an issue or
argument cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion and in reportage
of proceedings where balance is to be judged on a number of stories, rather
than a single report.

25. Newshub, in its amended article, attributes its statement on puberty blockers to the Ministry of Health. Newshub says despite the amendment to the Ministry’s website, the Ministry has said it maintains its position that puberty blockers are safe and reversible. The Council accepts Newshub’s advice on this and so does not find the statement inaccurate.

26. The Council noted, as set out in an earlier complaint (3327 – Hickson v Nelson Mail), the issue of gender dysphoria in children is a sensitive, complicated and important topic. There appears to be evolving scientific debate on the topic and a variety of genuinely held and differing opinions and it is important that all reasonable views are allowed to be heard, given the seriousness of the issues. However, the complainants’ views were covered in the article so Newshub’s presentation of the Ministry’s view provided the required balance. Additionally, the issue and alternate views are being covered in the media and so even if this one article was unbalanced, the exception in the second part of Principle (1) applies.

27. The Council does not find that Newshub should have given Ms Scott the opportunity to respond. Newshub did not identify Ms Scott in the article, and once the statement about false information was removed, is satisfied the article was balanced.

Principle (3) Children and Young People

28. Principle (3) says:

In case involving children and young people editors must demonstrate an
exceptional degree of public interest to override the interests of the child or
young person.

29. The article was about Ms Scott and gender dysphoria issues more generally. While the issue is very relevant to those children and young people affected, this principle is intended to cover articles about particular children and young people, which this article did not.

Principles (4)  Comment and Fact, and Column and (5) Columns, Blogs, Opinions and Letters

 30. Principle (4) says:

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. 

31. Newshub accepted that the article had not clearly distinguished between fact and comment or opinion. It removed the statement about false arguments, and referenced the Ministry of Health as authority for its statement about puberty blockers being safe and reversible. The article was not an opinion piece. With the changes made, the Council is satisfied the article does not breach Principles (4) or (5).

Principle (6) Headlines and Captions

 32. Principle (6) requires that headlines should “accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to cover”. The complainants objected to the headline, saying it positioned Ms Scott as silly and diminished her views. Ms Scott suggested alternate headlines. The Council finds that the headline (Woman trespassed from Ministry of Social Development after getting upset over gender-inclusive poster) accurately conveys the substance of the article. Other headlines, including those Ms Scott suggested, were possible, and it may have been preferable to say the woman ‘objected to’ the poster, rather than getting upset. However, the Council does not believe this means Principle (6) is breached.

Principle (7) Diversity and Inclusion

33. Principle (7) says:

Issues of gender, religion, minority groups, sexual orientation, age, race, colour or physical or mental disability
are legitimate subjects for discussion where they are relevant and in the public interest, and publications may
report and express opinions in these areas. Publications should not, however, place gratuitous emphasis on
any such category in their reporting.

 34. The complainants place particular emphasis on the final sentence of Principle (7) saying Newshub had placed gratuitous emphasis on gender above the interests of the other diversity factors listed, and above the interests of tangata whenua. The Council finds that the issue of gender was directly relevant to the story, and as Newshub did not place any gratuitous emphasis on that issue, cannot uphold the complaint under Principle (7).

Principle (9) Subterfuge

35. Ms Landy referenced Principle (9) in her complaint but did not provide information to support her view Newshub had breached this Principle.

Principle (12) Corrections

36. Principle (12) says:

A publication’s willingness to correct errors enhances its credibility and, often, defuse complaint. Significant errors
should be promptly corrected with fair prominence. In some circumstances it will be appropriate to offer an apology
and a right of rely to an affected person or persons.

37. The statement in the original article that the statements made by ”the woman” “were false arguments often used by anti-transgender people” was presented as a statement of fact in a news article, whereas it is a statement about which there are different views, and the journalist was clearly expressing an opinion. Newshub’s amendment of the article was necessary but not prompt as required by Principle (12). Newshub published the article on 19 October and received the first complaints on 21 October. Newshub did not correct the article until 2 November, 14 days after the article was published and 12 days after the first complaints were received. 

38. Additionally, the Council finds that the statement drawing attention to the amendment was not satisfactory. It read “This story was amended on November 2 to remove a reference to false arguments used by anti-transgender people”. As identified by one of the complainants, the statement itself was open to the interpretation that “the woman’s” arguments were false and the people were anti-transgender. It did not communicate a clear acceptance by Newshub that the statement was inappropriate.

39. Having identified Ms Scott as the woman in the article, the complainants believed she should have been offered a right of reply and given an apology. They thought the correction should have been given more prominence, and some thought the apology should have been given to all women or the public more generally. However, the Council is satisfied that as Ms Scott had not been identified in the article, it was not necessary for any public apology. The statement about false arguments was positioned so it referred to Ms Scott’s views, and the Council believes a personal apology would have been diplomatic but there was no need to offer Ms Scott a right of reply.

40. Decision: The complaint is upheld on Principle (12). The complaint is not upheld on Principles (1), (3), (4), (5), (6), (7), or (9).

Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Hank Schouten, Jonathan Mackenzie, Scott Inglis, Tim Watkin, Ben France-Hudson, Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, , Marie Shroff, Alison Thom and Richard Pamatatau.

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