JOHN WAKELIN AGAINST NZ HERALD

Case Number: 3260

Council Meeting: MAY 2022

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions
Deception or Subterfuge

Overview

1. The New Zealand Herald published an article on 3 April 2022, reporting on the Ministry of Health released Covid-19 statistics, headed Covid 19 Omicron outbreak: 8810 new community cases, 18 deaths. John Wakelin complains that the heading and the article are misleading, particularly in reference to the reporting of Covid-19 related deaths. Mr Wakelin alleges a breach of Principles 1. Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, 4. Comment and Fact, 6. Headlines and Captions and 9. Subterfuge.

2. This article published in the NZ Herald, headed Covid 19 Omicron outbreak: 8810 new community, cases, 18 deaths reports on and discusses Covid-19 related statistics and information released by the Ministry of Health that day. It specifically reports the new community case numbers, Covid-linked deaths and their demographics, hospitalisations, and some trends. Professor Michael Baker is quoted on the future needs for controls as the outbreak progresses. Professor Michael Plank comments similarly on the reasonable settings for a move to orange in Auckland.

3. New Zealand’s first case of Covid-19 was reported on 28 February 2020. From then the Ministry of Health began to announce case numbers coming through the border daily. Community transmission of Covid-19 was confirmed on 23 March and that day the Prime Minister announced that NZ would move to alert level 4 at 11.59pm on 24 March. A rapid rise in cases was reported daily. By 28 March there were 451 cases in the country, predominantly in Auckland.

4. On 29 March the Ministry of Health reported the first Covid-19 related death, a woman in her 70s from the West Coast.

5. The government held daily press conferences where statistics on Covid-19 case numbers and deaths were headlined and other key messages about prevention and management were made.

6. The number of cases, particularly in Auckland, began to rise again in August 2020.

7. Covid-19 cases continued to be reported for the rest of the year, mostly in single digit numbers. While NZ cases of Covid-19 were greatly reduced, the toll of cases and deaths from around the world were continually reported across the media.

8. New Zealand was less impacted by Covid-19 in the first 6 or 7 months of 2021 with much of that period seeing no community cases at all.  What we now know as Delta Covid-19 got through the border in late July early August. This more virulent strain triggered immediate lockdowns throughout the country and reignited daily reporting on case numbers and deaths.

9. The first case of Omicron in New Zealand was confirmed in December 2021. Being so highly transmissible, messaging around precautions and management was stepped up. Daily statistics were being reported again.

10. In March 2022 the Ministry announced changes to the reporting of Covid-19 related deaths. This meant that “Deaths will automatically be reported if the person died within 28 days of a positive test result, the same system many countries are using around the world, including the UK.” This measure included those who clearly died due to Covid-19; where a person died with Covid-19, but it was not the cause of death; and when the person died with Covid-19, but the cause of death is yet unknown. With the greater number of Omicron infections and the broader definition of the term Covid-19 death, this meant that significantly higher numbers of Covid-19 deaths would be reported, and this was the case. Beginning in March there was a rapid rise in the number of Covid-19 cases, peaking at around 25,000 per day. Covid-19 deaths, with the new definition peaked at 100 per week, with several daily reports at over 30 deaths.

The Complaint

11. John Wakelin complains that the NZ Herald article intentionally exaggerates the Covid-19 death rate in NZ by 900% which misleads the public into thinking that the death rate is vastly more than it is. He views this as leading to a health panic amongst the public.

12. While acknowledging that the manner of reporting deaths in the article is aligned with the government’s reporting processes, Mr Wakelin believes that the NZ Herald is disingenuous in reporting these high numbers when at the time the confirmed number of deaths caused by Covid-19 was 43. He has taken a straw-poll of friends who all thought that the 18 deaths headline meant that 18 people had died due to Covid.

13. The nub of the complaint is Mr Wakelin’s assertion that the headline “…18 deaths” suggests that those deaths are confirmed as having died of Covid-19 rather than with Covid-19.

14. Additionally, Mr Wakelin poses that the government has “funnelled large amounts of money to the press” suggesting that the press “have been paid off to parrot what the govt. wants them to say.” He provides no evidence of this. 

The Response

15. Andrew Laxon, the News Editor, responded to Mr Wakelin’s complaint saying that the article was based on the Ministry of Health’s 1.00 statement for that day. He also stated that “Suitable care was taken in the article, as we do every day, to specify that the ministry’s figures relate to deaths with Covid” and to his best knowledge they were reporting the figures in a similar and consistent fashion to other New Zealand media outlets.

16. Mr Laxon suggests that Mr Wakelin’s complaint would be better addressed to the Ministry of Health and then discusses the rationale behind the change in method of reporting Covid-19 deaths. He also suggests that Mr Wakelin might want to make his point in a letter to the Editor.

The Discussion

17. Since the beginning of the pandemic the reporting of deaths caused by Covid-19 has been given significant gravitas from politicians, officials and throughout the media. Each death was acknowledged publicly with some context as to the person and their circumstances. The significantly higher number of cases of Omicron and the change in the way Covid-19 deaths and Covid-19 related deaths have been reported since March 2022 has no doubt been somewhat disturbing, with most deaths simply reported as numbers, although it is unknown whether this has led to a health panic amongst the public as Mr Wakelin suggests.

18. The change in the way that the Ministry of Health would report Covid-19 related deaths was widely published and aired at the time of the change. While sometimes the term Covid-19 related or Covid-19 linked deaths is used to indicate the more inclusive count, much of the time in the media and on the Ministry of Health website shorthand has been used, simply using the term Covid deaths.

19. Within the article Mr Wakelin complained about there is one use of the term Covid-linked deaths and another of Covid-related deaths, which suggest the wider definition of people who have died with Covid-19. The other references, including the headline, use the shortened phrase, Covid deaths.

20. It is possible to construe the term Covid-19 deaths as meaning people who have died of Covid-19, rather than with Covid-19, though as time has passed and people are more aware of the definition it is likely that confusion should reduce.

21. It is useful if stories remind readers of what the new figures mean, as the NZ Herald did in this case, by using terms like Covid-related or Covid-linked at some point.

22. NZ Herald and other media outlets have adopted the language and definitions used by the Ministry of Health in reporting Covid-19 cases and deaths. The NZ Herald cannot be held accountable for this terminology and has used the terms Covid-related and Covid-linked, which represent the new way of counting deaths, therefore is not in breach of any of the nominated Principles.

23. In response to Mr Wakelin’s suggestion that the NZ Herald, or the press in general, have been paid off to parrot the government’s messages, the Media Council understands NZ on Air operates a robust and independent process for fund allocation to media organisations.

Decision: Not Upheld

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Craig Cooper, Ben France-Hudson, Richard Pamatatau, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Alison Thom, Reina Vaai and Tim Watkin.

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