LINDLEY SMITH AGAINST STUFF
Case Number: 3420
Council Meeting: 7 August 2023
Decision: Not Upheld
Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Comment and Fact
- Stuff published an article headed ‘Most violent targeting of any community’: The aftermath of Posie Parker’s visit on May 5, 2023. Lindley Smith complains under Principles (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance and (4) Comment and Fact.
- The article reported on the moving focus of the disinformation community from Covid-19 to anti-transgender rhetoric, based on data presented by the Disinformation Project (the Project) in a paper titled, Transgressive Transitions (the paper).
- This recently published paper documents the number and nature of content distributed by New Zealand’s disinformation networks, highlighting an increase in connections between previously disparate groups over anti-transgender shared beliefs. The paper describes the measured increase in content shared on social media platforms that is anti-transgender and anti-intersex, queerphobic and transphobic.
- Comments on the paper are made by Ms Kate Hannah, representing the Disinformation Project. While gathering data for the report, members of the Project witnessed “the most violent targeting of any community” focused on transgender, intersex people and their allies, as well as “some of the most extreme queerphobic content online to date."
- Ms Hannah expressed concerns about the level of violent content being aired with much of it being “too violent and featured harm too graphic to include” (in the report). A key finding was “the level of violent rhetoric directed at politician, Marama Davidson, including death threats which spiked to 'unprecedented levels'.”
- She linked the increase in violence to Ms Posie Parker saying, “we could all see and feel what seems like really immediate effects of Parker’s presence in Australia and Aotearoa.” There was a spike in content and engagement with anti-transgender material by the disinformation communities between 26 and 31 March, the period Ms Parker was in Australia and New Zealand.
- The report identified that this type of content was expanding from more unregulated platforms such as Telegram Channels to more mainstream media platforms which had recently seen a loosening of standards.
- The article is concluded with a statement by Ms Hannah that this data about the growing online attacks on transgender and their allies is important “to be able to advocate for the queer community and for the operations of democratic institutions.”
- Mr Smith says that it would be easy to find people that do not consider much from the Disinformation Project to be factual, calling out a breach of Principle (4) on the basis there is no proof of facts in the reported Transgressive Transitions paper.
- He also complains that with only the Disinformation Project quoted in the article there is a lack of balance. On being advised by Stuff that a follow-up article, with views challenging the paper, had been published to provide balance, Mr Smith was unable to access the article because it sat behind the recently established paywall of The Post, a subsidiary of Stuff. This elevated his concern about the lack of balance in the original article.
- Stuff stands by the Disinformation Project as a reputable research organisation and upholds the Transgressive Transitions paper as analysis of the violent rhetoric aimed at transgender people. It considers the article to be a fair and accurate representation of the paper.
- Stuff comments that:
To add any voices questioning the validity of this independent research organisation, simply because they don’t like its findings, would seriously risk contributing to the spread of information and disinformation.
- On the issue of balance, Stuff contacted Speak up for Women (SUFW) but given the paper was still embargoed they were unwilling to comment. Consequently, comments from SUFW were included in a follow-up story that appeared the next day in The Post newspaper and online on thepost.co.nz, behind the paywall.
- The editor concludes saying that it was Stuff’s prerogative to use different publication channels for their content.
- Further communications from a Managing Director at Stuff clarify their policy:
Where issues of imbalance arise, the balance must be provided in such a way to address imbalance. Put simply, if a published story is not sufficiently balanced, measures to address that imbalance should appear within the same publication.
- The Managing Director adds that the issue of gender identity, the trans community and human rights is complex, and that Stuff has addressed balance in this long running issue through the publication of many stories and including a wide range of viewpoints, saying “we do not agree with the complainant's view that the first story required further comment from interest groups to achieve balance.”
- The Media Council agrees that the Disinformation Project’s is a reputable research organisation and that the Transgressive Transitions paper is newsworthy. We accept the article is accurate and note that all comments from Ms Hannah are indicated as such.
- Due to a change in staff, Stuff’s response has come from two different staff members, leading to what could be seen as inconsistencies in their responses. The initial response said balance had been provided by a follow-up story that included the response of Speak up for Women. Mr Smith did not accept this, as he said it was behind a paywall and not accessible to all those who had seen the original story. Further communication from Stuff said that they did not believe the first story required balance from other interest groups, as it fell into the category of a long-running issue, where balance was provided over time.
- The Council has considered the complaint under Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance which states: 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.
- The Council agrees this story falls into the category of a long-running issue where balance can be provided over time. This report can be seen as a new development on a particular aspect of this long-running issue. As the report was about the research findings of a group of respected academics and in an area they are expert in, the Council does not see the need for others to comment for balance. In fact, the story Thanks for your email. Media Council decisions are not subject to review or appeal to another body. was cited as providing balance only contained a few sentences from Stand up for Women; most of it was reporting the views of interest groups who supported the report.
- In the context of this long-running issue on gender-identity we expect that Stuff will continue to address balance through the presentation of a wide range of views over time.
- The complainant also raised the issue of whether it was acceptable for balancing comment to be behind a paywall when the original story was freely available. The Council has determined that balancing comment was not required in this case, so was not required to address the paywall issue in this decision.
- Decision: The complaint is not upheld on Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance and it is not upheld on Principle (4) Comment and Fact.
Council members considering the complaint were Marie Shroff (Chair), Hank Schouten, Rosemary Barraclough, Tim Watkin, Scott Inglis, Ben France-Hudson, Judi Jones, Reina Vaai, Alison Thom.