KARA ISAAC AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 3257

Council Meeting: MAY 2022

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Headlines and Captions
Suicide Reports

Overview

[1] On 9 February 2022, Stuff published a story headed: A parent’s suggestion of conversion therapy doubles the risk of suicide, self harm. The story said: “Rainbow youth whose parents suggest they get conversion therapy for being queer or transgender are twice as likely to consider suicide and self harm.” It reported the research and views of University of Auckland researcher and psychologist, Dr John Fenaughty, who had presented the findings of the Identify research to the Select Committee on the Conversion Practices Prohibition Legislation Bill. He said he hoped if parents understood the risks of suggesting conversion therapy they would be less likely to do so. 

[2] The story also reported the comments of then National MP Simon Bridges who planned to vote against the Bill, saying he was in favour of “allowing parents to be parents”. He was quoted as saying “reasonable New Zealanders” would prefer to talk to their children and take a “watchful waiting” approach to gender dysphoria and sexuality. Dr Fenaughty said he was shocked to hear those comments, as the research showed conversion practices were potentially lethal.

[3] The article reported that the research showed 3 percent of the participants in the Identify survey had experienced conversion therapy and 4 percent were too upset to talk about it. Dr Fenaughty said the survey “conservatively” suggested that around one in 10 rainbow young people had been impacted by conversion practice. 

[4] The story was also published in The Dominion Post with the headline: Parents offering conversion therapy raises harm risk, says researcher. It was a slightly shortened version and omitted the comments from Simon Bridges.

The Complaint

[5] Kara Isaac complained about both the print and online stories. Regarding the online story, she complained that it breached Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance, and Principle 6: Headlines and Captions, and she also raised “other ethical grounds” relating to reporting on youth suicide. Regarding the print story, she complained about accuracy, but not about fairness, balance or the headline, because of the differences between the two versions.

[6] The article made two main claims which she said were inaccurate or misleading. Firstly, that rainbow youth whose parents suggest conversion therapy are at double the risk of suicide (according to the headline) or considering or attempting suicide (used interchangeably in the article, she said). Secondly, that “conservatively” one out of 10 rainbow youth have had a conversion therapy experience.

[7] Ms Isaac raised concerns about the survey methodology, and the fact that survey participants were self-selected, suggesting the research would not pass peer review. The article failed to scrutinise the claims or the research, she said. 

[8] Regarding the suicide risk increase, the story said the suggestion of conversion therapy was enough to raise suicide risk, but this was not what the research suggested, she said. There did not appear to be any data on whether there was an increased risk of harm where conversion therapy was suggested, but the young person did not subsequently have a conversion experience. The connection was with the actual experience of a conversion practice, not just the suggestion of it.

[9] Ms Isaac also noted that, in the submission to the Select Committee, no reference was made to parents, rather it referred to a wide range of people who made conversion therapy suggestions. 

[10] Ms Isaac said the claim that “conservatively” one out of 10 rainbow youth had had a conversion experience was likely to be inflated and inaccurate. Dr Fenaughty had taken the 3 percent who said they had a conversion experience, added 4 percent who didn’t answer the question because it was too upsetting, and rounded this up to one in 10. The Select Committee submission separated out the 3 and 4 percent figures and did not conflate them, she said.

[11] The online article was unfair to Bridges, as it took a quote from another media outlet and inserted it into an article about youth suicide and then used it as a basis to criticise him. He should have been given the opportunity to respond to Dr Fenaughty’s criticism of him. Bridges’ comment was clearly about gender dysphoria and the medical aspects of treatment. Stuff had added “and sexuality” when his comments made no reference to this. Bridges was talking about “watchful waiting”, not conversion therapy, and it was unfair to conflate the two. He was on the record as saying if the Bill had related only to sexual orientation he would have voted for it. Ms Isaac asked Stuff for the AAP source of Bridges’ comments. 

[12] The article was also unbalanced, Ms Isaac said. Balance could have been provided by highlighting the shortcomings of self-selected surveys, by reporting the concerns of those who submitted against the Bill, or by including research from other experts on suicide and rainbow youth. If Stuff regarded the article as being part of a long-running issue and therefore not requiring balance in this individual article, then the overall coverage had been consistently unbalanced, with numerous opinion and news articles in favour of the Bill, a few covering both sides, and not a single one against.

[13] Ms Isaac said it was irresponsible to exaggerate the prevalence of suicide. It might exacerbate the vulnerability of transgender adolescents. Stuff’s own code of practice said suicide usually resulted from a complex set of circumstances and was seldom the result of a single event, and that articles should avoid presenting suicide as a method of coping with problems. She drew attention to the Mental Health Foundation guidelines on reporting suicide, including that the word suicide should not be used in headlines. 

[14] Regarding the headline: A parent’s suggestion of conversion therapy doubles the risk of suicide, self harm was problematic in two ways, she said. It suggested that a parents’ suggestion of conversion therapy doubled the risk of suicide, but this was not what the research showed. It was also irresponsible because it might suggest to a rainbow young person that suicide was an understandable response to the suggestion of conversion therapy. Stuff had responded that they could not make the headline more accurate due to space restrictions, but The Dominion Post’s headline: Parents offering conversion therapy raises harm risk, says researcher, showed that Stuff had chosen a longer, sensational heading over a shorter, accurate one. 

[15] Ms Isaac also complained about the hyperlinks in the story, which she said gave the impression of fact-checking when there was none. Hyperlinks should go to source material, not other Stuff articles, she said.  

The Response

[16] Stuff replied that while they accepted suicide was a sensitive issue, they did not shy away from it, as it was an issue of legitimate public concern. Stuff did not believe the story was sensationalist or irresponsible. The story did not suggest that being referred for conversion therapy was the single cause of suicide or suicidal thoughts for rainbow youth. It simply highlighted that some who responded to the survey reported that experience. The Mental Health Foundation guidelines were just that – guidelines – and there was no reason to avoid the use of the word suicide in headlines.

[17] Regarding the sentence: “Conservatively then, close to around one in 10 young people are likely to have been directly impacted by a conversion therapy experience,” Stuff said they had questioned Dr Fenaughty about the figure. He replied that he had combined the 3 percent who had reported a conversion experience with the 4 percent of respondents who were too upset to answer. He suggested that other research informed his belief that there was likely to be undercounting, so he was comfortable with the percentage provided. The reporter had asked whether this further research was available but was told it would be a PhD level volume of research. Stuff said: “This is his opinion as an expert in the field, and clearly attributed to him,” and Stuff was “satisfied by Dr Fenaughty’s credibility and his reasonable explanations”. Following the complaint, Stuff added extra detail to the story explaining how Dr Fenaughty reached the 10 percent figure.

[18] With any research of this nature, there was a level of intangibility, Stuff said, but this did not discredit the research, its findings or the fact that Dr Fenaughty and colleagues were experts in their field. In a further response, Ms Isaac challenged this, saying the research team was not objective, as it included three people from advocacy organisations who were lobbying for the Bill. Stuff should have sought the views of an objective expert in survey methodology, she said. Stuff replied that Dr Fenaughty had expertise in suicide and self-harm prevention over two decades of involvement in academic research. The study was conducted by academics from two universities, representatives of rainbow organisations and the NZ Council for Educational Research, who all had a vested interest in the integrity of the research.

[19] Stuff said Ms Isaac was correct that the research had not been peer reviewed yet. It was presented to the Select Committee early because of its relevance. This was also added to the story following the complaint.

[20] Stuff had also questioned Dr Dr Fenaughty again about the comments on parental influence made in the interview. He stood by the comments as accurate.

[21] Regarding fairness, Stuff defended its quoting of Bridges, saying AAP was a widely used source and the quote accurately reflected what he said and his reasons for voting against the Bill. His comments were relevant to the story and provided balance. 

 [22] Stuff also rejected the suggestion that the story was inconsistent in what it claimed. The opening sentence and Dr Fenaughty’s statement: “We know that when parents suggest conversion therapy to young people, we double the odds of attempted suicide,” reflected the results of the survey and the headline’s meaning was the same. 

[23] Regarding the hyperlinks, Stuff said they were to provide context and examples of relevant previous reporting. They had added a link to the researchers’ Select Committee submission, as requested by Ms Isaac. 

[24] Regarding the print version of the story, Stuff said it was simply shortened to remove Bridges’ comments, which it viewed as background and context. 

The Discussion

[25] The complaint submitted to the Media Council included a great deal of detail, much of it about Ms Isaac’s concern about the Identify research, and there have been a number of lengthy emails between Stuff and the complainant. A great deal of time and effort has been expended by both sides in attempting to resolve her concerns. This decision will deal with the most significant matters raised. 

[26] Central to Ms Isaac’s complaint is her contention that Stuff has not sufficiently questioned the research that backs up Dr Fenaughty’s statements about the dangers of conversion therapy. She says there are differences in the research as reported in the article and the evidence presented to the Select Committee. Ms Isaac presents other research that she says contradicts the Identify research which this story is based on. 

[27] The Council does not have the expertise to offer any opinion on the quality of the research. The story clearly sets out that the statements are Dr Fenaughty’s interpretation of the findings of the research he was involved in. It appears he has many years of expertise in the field. On the broader issue of whether Stuff should have talked to other researchers about the methodology used and the validity of the research, the Media Council believes this was not necessary. Many research findings are covered in stand-alone stories without seeking commentary from outside researchers, and this work was produced by experienced researchers from reputable organisations, so there was no requirement to go looking for critical views on it.

[28] Central to the story is Dr Fenaughty’s statement: “We know when parents suggest conversion therapy to young people, we double the odds of attempted suicide.” Ms Isaac is correct that this is different to what was reported to the Select Committee. The submission said that those who said they had experienced conversion therapy were nearly twice as likely to have reported a suicide attempt, whereas Dr Fenaughty was referring to the suggestion of conversion therapy. However, the statement complained about is a direct quote from a researcher with wide experience in the area and he is entitled to express his views. Ms Isaac raised other concerns about the research, including whether it mattered who suggested conversion therapy. The story would have been improved by a more questioning approach and clarification of these matters, but we accept that this was Dr Fenaughty’s interpretation of the research, after questioning by Stuff he is comfortable with those views, and is entitled to express them.

[29] Dr Fenaughty’s assertion that one in 10 rainbow youth have experienced conversion therapy raised the obvious question of how he reached this conclusion, when only 3 percent of those surveyed fell into this category. There was no explanation for this in the original article, and it was significantly different to the Select Committee submission which gave the “conservative” figure of one in 40. It would have been good practice to have questioned Dr Fenaughty on this discrepancy (which Stuff said they had), and it would have been helpful to then have included his explanation in the story. However, Stuff added this information after the complaint was received, and it is now reported that his conclusion was based partly on his wider knowledge of the subject which suggested under-reporting would have been likely. Stuff also added that the research had not been peer-reviewed yet, which was appropriate. Although the Council believes Stuff could have questioned Dr Fenaughty more about the apparent discrepancies, particularly the one in 10 figure, the complaint about accuracy is not upheld under Principle 1, because the statements are the interpretation of an experienced researcher, who has confirmed he is comfortable with the statements made, and Stuff added clarifying information.

[30] Ms Isaac also complained about the hyperlinks in the story which she said should have linked to evidence backing up the claims. However, while this might be useful, the Media Council considers that the decision to add hyperlinks to a story, and the content of these, is a matter of editorial discretion, and Stuff did include a hyperlink to the Identify submission after the complaint was received.

[31] Ms Isaac contends that the use of Bridges’ comment was not fair to him. She says Stuff should not have used the AAP comment, and then allowed Dr Fenaughty to criticise Bridges on the basis of it, but should have asked Bridges directly for comment. The Council has sympathy for Ms Isaac’s assertion that Bridges was commenting on gender dysphoria rather than sexuality. Although Stuff could not provide the AAP feed from which the comment was sourced, it provided a tweet which contained what the Media Council believes is Bridge’s full statement, which only includes specific comments about gender dysphoria not sexuality. So the statement in the story that: “He believes ‘reasonable New Zealanders’ would prefer to talk to their children, and take a ‘watchful waiting’ approach to gender dysphoria and sexuality,” may be a misinterpretation of what he said. However, the Bill that Bridges was voting against was seeking to outlaw conversion therapy for both gender dysphoria and sexuality, so Dr Fenaughty could be seen to be criticising that stance as much as the statement quoted from AAP. For that reason the complaint about unfairness under Principle 1 is not upheld. 

[32] The Media Council considers that a balancing viewpoint was not necessary for the story, which covered one aspect of a widely canvassed subject, as allowed under Principle 1, which states in part: “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.” 

[33] Ms Isaac contends that if Stuff is seeking to achieve balance over time, it has failed, counting seven stories where content was clearly in support of the Bill, three that were neutral or included quotes in support and against the Bill, and none that were solely expressing opposition to the Bill. The Media Council notes the importance of ensuring that all sides of a debate are covered, particularly when one view may appear unpopular, but on the basis of the evidence presented we cannot say that Stuff has not fulfilled the requirement for balance over time, as it has covered opposing views to some extent. An overwhelming majority of parliamentarians and a majority of the public supported the Bill, so it is not surprising that there were more voices in support. 

[34] In summary, the complaint under Principle 1 is not upheld, although the story could have taken a more questioning approach to the claim that one in 10 rainbow youth were exposed to conversion therapy, and reported the results of its probing. Stuff’s willingness to engage extensively in attempting to resolve the complaint and adding clarifying statements to the story was an appropriate response to the original story’s shortcomings.

[35] Ms Isaac also suggests that the story did not deal appropriately with the subject of suicide, but the Media Council does not agree. Although there is no particular principle that applies to this subject, the preamble allows complaints under other ethical principles. The Council does not believe the subject was dealt with in an unethical or sensational way. In fact, whānau of rainbow youth might find the research and commentary about conversion therapy’s link to suicide useful. Although the Council acknowledges that headlines around this subject should be written with care, it does not believe that a blanket prohibition on using the word “suicide” in headings is desirable.

[36] The Council has concerns about the online headline. Principle 6: Headlines and Captions states: Headlines, sub-headings, and captions should accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to cover. The heading on the online article said: A parent’s suggestion of conversion therapy doubles the risk of suicide, self harm. This statement is presented as a fact, when it would have been preferable to attribute the statement to Dr Fenaughty, as The Dominion Post did when it headed the story: Parents offering conversion therapy raises harm risk, says researcher. The headline was the academic’s interpretation of his research rather than an indisputable fact and therefore should have been attributed to him. This aspect of the complaint is upheld.

DECISION: Upheld on Principle 6, Headlines

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 and Tim Watkin

Reina Vaai took no part in the consideration of this complaint

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