JULIE FOGARTY AGAINST NEWSHUB

Case Number: 3058

Council Meeting: JUNE 2021

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Newshub TV3

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Conflict of Interest

Overview

[1] Julie Fogarty has complained about an article published on the Newshub website on March 16 titledNutritionist offers top five tips for boosting the health of toddlers. The article was written by Lifestyle Editor Sarah Templeton.

[2] The “top five tips” come from a Hawke’s Bay nutritionist, Gina Rose, and the story includes a recipe for ‘overnight oats’ soaked in milk and yoghurt. Rose is identified in the story as “nutritionist at Kiwi milk drink company Haven”.

[3] Following Ms Fogarty’s complaint to Newshub, three changes were made to the article. It currently carries the note “This article was updated on April 30 to include the benefits of breastmilk”.

The Complaint

[4] The complainant’s concern is that the story advertises the milk powder company, Haven, despite it being presented as an independent news story and thatNewshub fails to acknowledge that it has a commercial relationship with Haven. The website and AM Show run content sponsored by Haven.

[5] Ms Fogarty complains under Principle 1 Accuracy, Fairness and Balance and Principle 10 Conflicts of Interest, which stresses that journalism must be independent of sources and, when justified, any relationship between author and subject should be declared.

[6] Ms Fogarty says the article is “advertorial” but isn’t labelled as such and it’s “imperative to have independent, balanced editorials on this topic and honesty around advertorials vs editorials”. She also says the piece only seeks comment from one nutritionist and is essentially “just the ‘tips’ of a formula rep”.

[7] In her complaint to Newshub, Ms Fogarty asks, “Was it the Newshub [Lifestyle] editor who penned this? Based on what an infant formula brand’s employee says? No questions about the health claims?”

[8] She goes on to ask why Newshub interviewed a nutritionist paid by Haven rather than an independent or Ministry of Health nutritionist, less than a week after it aired a segment sponsored by the company on the AM Show. Why rely on a company that has a commercial relationship with Newshub and, further, a nutritionist “who has a significant conflict of interest herself”?

[9] Ms Fogarty says that when first published the story was illustrated directly below the headline by a promotional photo supplied by Haven and featuring a tin of its milk powder prominently displayed on a kitchen counter with a woman and child. Ms Fogarty points out the photo has been used in Haven advertising in other publications.

[10] The article initially named Rose as not just the nutritionist for Haven, but as “nutritionist at Kiwi company Haven,a new A2 Toddler Milk Drink”.

[11] Further, under a section recommending prebiotics, Templeton wrote “FOS and GOS prebiotics are a key ingredient in Haven’s A2 Protein Toddler Milk, alongside vitamins and minerals”. At the end of the story, a line noted “More information about Haven can be found on its official website”.

[12] Ms Fogarty also complains that the AM Show’s sponsored piece and this article undermine breastfeeding, but as that does not pertain to media standards we have left the matter to the side.

The Response

[13] In reply to Ms Fogarty’s direct complaint, Newshub’s Broadcasting Standards Manager Dianne Martin writes that the story was not advertorial, but rather “editorial content”.

[14] When the complaint was reviewed by the ‘Three Standards Committee’ it ruled the article did not breach Media Council principles. On Principle 1, Rose did supply the tips and her relationship with Haven was reported for the sake of transparency. While no inaccuracies were found, Newshub amended the story:

  • “…a new A2 Toddler Milk Drink…” was removed.
  • A line was added acknowledging that breastmilk is a source of probiotics and prebiotics.
  • The line saying prebiotics were a “key ingredient” in the milk drink was removed.

[15] On Principle 10, Martin says Templeton was not aware of the AM Show’s sponsored segment and insists that this article had nothing to do with any other commercial activities by Haven across company brands. No gifts, sponsorship or financial inducement was involved.

[16] The committee found no conflict of interest, but “to avoid any confusion” removed the sentence “More information about Haven can be found on its official website”.

[17] Martin says the complainant’s claim that the article featured a Haven promotional shot as its lead photo is incorrect. Ms Fogarty and the Council initially relied on a Facebook post of the story by Haven, which showed theNewshub article with the Haven publicity shot as the lead image. But Martin says the story only ever featured a generic photo of a toddler. Investigations byNewshub as a result of this complaint showed that “Haven’s agency”, Zuru, had doctored the story and inserted its publicity shot into the article when posting it to Facebook. Zuru admitted their mistake and took down the post. But the story itself never included the advertising shot.

Further correspondence

[18] Subsequently Ms Fogarty advised she had found out that Zuru is actually the owner of Haven and that the Facebook post, with the mock-up of aNewshub story was still on the Haven Facebook page.

[19] On being advised of this Newshub said they were clearly advised incorrectly. Zuru had advised them that no posts were live. They had emailed Zuru to request they take that post down immediately and it has now been removed.

[20] The Newshub digital team had confirmed that they had understood Zuru's relationship to Haven as Zuru being Haven's agency and apologised for any confusion this has caused.

The Decision

Discussion

[21] The line between editorial and advertising, advertorials or sponsored content is a critical one for the news media, especially at a time when media companies are under significant commercial pressures and public trust in independent and accurate news is in jeopardy. The Media Council takes complaints such as this very seriously because the independence of journalism from conflicts of interest and commercial influence is a bedrock issue for the profession.

[22] In this case, Newshub insists the article was “editorial content”, not mislabelled advertorial. If that is so, then it is poor editorial content, because it presented in its initial form entirely as a piece of advertorial over which advertising staff had strong influence.

[23] Single source stories, especially those involving health recommendations, should almost always be a red flag for journalists. Any reporting offering advice on important issues, such as children’s health, will benefit from a range of views, scepticism and thorough investigation.

[24] Critically, in this story one particular toddler drink brand features three times in the original story, when the story is about toddler health and has no reason to mention any brand at all.

[25] New Zealand has hundreds of nutritionists and Newshub had plenty of opportunity to ensure it used one with which it did not have a financial relationship. That would have removed the need for the story to name – and therefore advertise – the drink company in the interests of transparency.

[26] The reference to prebiotics required no mention of a brand. And finally, encouraging readers to get more information about this irrelevant brand on the company website and providing a link has absolutely no place in “editorial content”.

[27] Any one of those failings would have amounted to this complaint being upheld; that the drink brand was promoted so many times in a single story makes the argument that this article was not advertorial seem almost incredible. But takingNewshub at its word, it is incredibly bad luck for the company that its Lifestyle Editor chose this nutritionist and the highlighting of this product when it is also an advertiser.

[28] While news organisations at times will want or need to do stories on companies that advertise with them, care must always be taken to act without fear or favour. And to be seen to be acting that way. The Media Council can only underline the fact that promoting commercial products in news stories is inherently biased and undermines the whole news industry. We hope this is an opportunity forNewshub to review the way it handles such stories and relationships.

[29] When first considering the complaint, it appeared to the Media Council thatNewshub had illustrated the article using a publicity shot with the baby milk powder brand prominently displayed. Thankfully,Newshub established that the photo was switched on Facebook by Haven. While the Council has no jurisdiction overadvertising industries, it’s worrying that any organisation would doctor a news story, while leaving the headline, by-line and all other display elements in place. While news organisations cannot have eyes everywhere, this is a warning as to the damage others can do to their editorial content and in their name, when those others look to trade off the credibility of independent news media.

[30] In this further correspondence about the photo, the complainant questioned the use of another Haven photo of Rose further down the story. However the Council is not concerned about that photo as it does not feature the toddler drink and the photo is clearly labelled as “supplied”, which is standard industry practice. It is odd however that a day after the photo was published the caption reads “Nutritionist Gina Rose with her children”, yet now, despite the complaint and changes made, it reads “Haven Expert and Nutritionist Gina Rose with her children”. Again, Rose’s expertise as a nutritionist is relevant; that she works for a particular food brand is not and smacks of promotion.

[31] The Council acknowledges that Newshub did act after the complaint to make significant changes to the story, including removing the website link. However we also note that it seems odd Three’s standards committee saw fit to make those changes, yet at the same time failed to recognise breaches of Council principles and defended the flawed story.

[32] We would also point out the importance of clear and accurate Corrections. The note on this story says merely that “This article was updated on April 30 to include the benefits of breastmilk” when in fact it was updated in several other ways as well.

Decision

[33] On the matter of Principle 1 Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, the complaint is upheld on balance.

[34] Principle 10 Conflicts of Interest starts: “To fulfil their proper watchdog role, publications must be independent and free of obligations to their news sources. They should avoid any situations that might compromise such independence”. The Council accepts at face value that the journalist and Newshub did not benefit financially from the story and it was not written because of their relationship with the drink company. Yet rather than avoiding a situation that might compromiseNewshub’s independence, the article seemed to invite it by repeatedly promoting an advertising client.The complaint is upheld under Principle 10.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff and Tim Watkin.

Jonathan MacKenzie stood down to maintain the public member majority.


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