JENNY KIRK AGAINST MEDIAWORKS NEWSHUB
Case Number: 2739
Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2018
Verdict: Upheld with Dissent
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
1. In the TV3 AM Show on 28 September 2018 the results of a daily Newshub poll were broadcast. The poll had asked people to rate Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s recent performance while at the United Nations. Results were announced at the end of the AM Show and were that the Prime Minister’s performance was: great 46%; good 9%; average 16%; poor 29%. Following the broadcast further votes came in, and by the end of 28 September the poll results had changed significantly. Four per cent of respondents had voted “great”, and 95% had voted “poor”. This result remained in public view on the broadcaster’s page for some days. (Information on numbers of votes has not been provided.)
2. The complainant, Jenny Kirk, complains of “poll fixing” and about unfairness, inaccuracy, and lack of balance. She says the situation goes “well beyond the standards of decency which New Zealanders expect from their media”. She is concerned about the delay in identifying and responding to manipulation of the poll. Ms Kirk notes that others beside her had noted the unlikeliness of the poll result.
3. Ms Kirk says that the broadcaster’s behaviour “goes deep into New Zealand’s democratic system”, and “showed just how easily a news media such asNewshub could help distort political opinion by allowing inaccurate numbers to be put into a poll”. She quotes Dr Jonathan Birch from the London School of Economics: “Polls are treated as a barometer of public opinion. They set the news agenda.” In her final comment Ms Kirk disputes the broadcaster’s response that the initial poll result broadcast on the morning of September 28 was accurate, given thatNewshub had no way of knowing whether manipulation took place only after the broadcast; and seeks reassurance steps will be taken to ensure that such manipulation will not happen again.
4. Robert Dowd of the MediaWorks Standards Committee confirmed the poll had been artificially manipulated, but believes the manipulation occurred after the broadcast. Until the complaint was received, the broadcaster was unaware of the manipulation. Generally, a daily poll will not be looked at again by Newshub, unless in relation to a further broadcast.
5. Mr Dowd says the AM Show’s daily polls are not scientific, are “not necessarily political” in nature and often deal with trivial or human interest topics. They are presented as a snapshot of viewer opinion and used as a “viewer engagement tool” to inform discussion during the broadcast. They remain available online they but are not archived or collected in a central location, and are attached to the article in question. They may be found via a web search but are not promoted or linked to. In fact this particular poll is not currently visible on the website, for unknown technical reasons. As a result of this complaint the MediaWorks digital team is auditing the polling application.
6. The relevant Media Council principles place on the media “a fundamental responsibility to maintain high standards of accuracy, fairness and balance and public faith in those standards.” It should be noted that the Council’s strict brief here is to consider online content only; but it is reasonable to take into account surrounding broadcasting context.
7. The circumstances of this complaint are unusual in that Newshub itself manufactured the “news”, viz the results of its own daily poll. The broadcaster has freely and to its credit, admitted that the poll was manipulated and says it has now removed the manipulated votes from the results.MediaWorks has also cited the context it sees as relevant, which is that it is a daily poll, often of ephemeral or trivial interest; and asserts that the result, as broadcast, was accurate ie not manipulated. However, the response did not directly address the issue of manipulation of polls; nor did it deal with the complainant’s point that the manipulated result remained in public gaze for some days, except to say that such daily polls are not revisited and the manipulation therefore went unnoticed by Newshub.
8. This Newshub poll generated by the broadcaster, rating the performance of the Prime Minister at the United Nations, was not trivial, but rather, highly political. The manipulated poll result is reported to have stayed on the website for some days and thus was available for public viewing. In all circumstances, but especially when manufacturing their own “news”, news media need to take special care to ensure they are not being manipulated to political ends. This will ensure the public can continue to have faith in the integrity of their mainstream news sources.
9. Media Council principles require that: “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 the Council’s viewNewshub have misinformed readers by omission, and failure to take prompt action to correct misleading information. It is not sufficient to say that this was not deliberate because it was not noticed by one part of the MediaWorks organisation. The complainant informed MediaWorks immediately on the evening of September 28 of her concerns that there was something “very wrong” with the poll. Her complaint was acknowledged the same day. Action should have been taken quickly by the organisation to correct the position, or at least to take the poll offline until the matter could be clarified.
The complaint is upheld by the majority of Media Council members 8:1.
Dissent from Tim Watkin
These so-called polls have long been problematic for audiences and finding new ways and words to distinguish between unscientific, self-selected online ‘polls’ and rigorous scientific polls would be welcome. However I think most people realise these ‘polls’ - which sometimes ask, for example, whether NZ should celebrate Thanksgiving or if you resent Christmas - are not to be taken seriously or viewed in the same light as scientific polls, as the complainant does. The complainant asks the Council to treat these ‘polls’ as it would a manipulated poll by a professional pollster. But they are chalk and cheese. They cannot - and should not - be taken seriously by readers or the Council. Further I fear we may struggle to apply our principles in a consistent manner given their sheer number. This ‘poll’ was not turned into a news story – which would have been unwise – and is no different from thousands that have run on websites and TV shows for years. They appear every day online and all can be skewed by vested interests. To uphold a complaint against this ‘poll’ is arbitrary and holds such gimmicks to a standard they can’t possibly meet.
Media Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.