MARK ARMSTRONG AGAINST STUFF
Case Number: 2768
Council Meeting: APRIL 2019
Verdict: Not Upheld
Balance, Lack Of
1. Mark Armstrong complains about an article published by Stuff on January 26, 2019. He submits that the article breaches Principle 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance) of the Media Council principles and also Principle 4 (comment and fact).
2. The Media Council does not uphold the complaint.
3. On January 26, 2019, Stuff published an article headed “In hot water: How climate change is affecting our treasured lakes”. The first part of the article concerns Mokoia Island, in Lake Rotorua, and includes quotes from an interview with Rawhiri Bhana, Chair of the Mokoia Island Trust. The second part concerns South Island lakes (with some mention of Lake Taupō) and is not the subject of this complaint.
4. The main theme of the article and of Mr Bhana’s remarks is that Mokoia Island is at risk from the effects of climate change, including rising lake levels and more frequent and severe storms. The article also mentioned increasing numbers of rats, a phenomenon that Mr Bhana attributed to storm events that washed rats from swollen rivers on to the island.
5. Mr Armstrong complains that the relevant part of the article includes statements, largely attributed to one person, that were uncritically presented as statements of fact when there is evidence that some of the statements are contestable and others are untrue. His main concerns are:
- The attribution of changes in the level of Lake Rotorua to recent man-made climate change when there is evidence of large fluctuations since the 1880s
- Failing to mention that since at least 1982, the water levels in Lakes Rotoiti and Rotorua have been largely controlled by the Okere Falls gates and the Ohau Channel weir
- The lack of independent evidence that major storms are becoming more frequent
- The lack of evidence to substantiate Mr Bhana’s remarks about the reason for increasing numbers of rats. Almost all reports of rat landings are clear that the rats arrived on boats or in people’s bags, or that the reporter did not know how the rat had arrived.
- A statement that the Kaituna river flows into Lake Rotorua
He supplied a number of references to reports in support of his arguments.
6. Mr Armstrong later summarised his concerns by saying “The essence of my argument that because the original article did not consider documented historic fluctuations of similar or greater magnitude that the article lacked accuracy, fairness and balance as it misleads readers by omission still stands.”
7. John Hartevelt, Projects Director, responded to the complaint on behalf of Stuff. He acknowledged that the statement about the Kaituna river was an error and would be corrected, but otherwise did not accept Mr Armstrong’s views
8. He explained the background to the interview with Mr Bhana, and also noted that the Stuff journalists had spoken with locals and volunteers at Mokoia island who “backed up [Mr Bhana’s] experiences with lake levels”. He also provided a number of references to substantiate the report of an increase in extreme weather events.
9. In a further response, Mr Hartevelt noted that the story outlined the damaging impact of erosion on Mokoia Island, in itself evidence of climate change. He went on to reiterate the steps taken to verify Mr Bhana’s statements, including a mention ofnumerous reports of rat incursions on to the island, including by a species known to be a good swimmer.
10. Mr Hartevelt also supplied a critique of the reports provided by Mr Armstrong, concluding that they support the content of the article.
11. The context of this complaint is the wider debate about the effects, and in some cases the existence, of human-induced climate change.It is not the role of the Media Council to comment on the science of climate change, but rather to consider whether a news publisher has observed the appropriate principles in reporting on climate change and associated matters.
12. To a large extent, Mr Armstrong’s complaint is about the reported remarks of Mr Bhana. While a publication certainly has an obligation to report accurately, the nature of the obligation when it is reporting opinions and factsexpressed by the subject of an interview is rather different from the obligation that relates to material generated by reporters and journalists. The publication should take reasonable steps to ensure that its source is reputable and where the source is held out to be an authority, that there are good grounds for considering him or her as authoritative. However as long as it is clear that the report is of the words of the interviewee rather than making the writer’s own statement of fact, then generally all that is required is that the words be accurately reported.
13. Mr Bhana’s background and experience are directly relevant to the subject matter of the article and entitle him to be treated as an authority. In addition, the reporter took reasonable steps to check his statements with others who could be expected to have relevant knowledge and experience.To the extent that the article expresses the writer’s own opinion on the disputed matters, and very little of her own opinion is reported, it is firmly based on the material supplied by Mr Bhana.
14. Mr Armstrong has supplied a good deal of material in support of his arguments. While there is no doubt that this material comes from reputable sources, it is clear that different inferences can be drawn from it and it cannot be taken as conclusive.
15. Principle 4 requires a publication to distinguish between fact on the one hand and comment or opinion on the other. In this case there is a clear distinction between the reported remarks of Mr Bhana, which are a mixture of fact and opinion, and the reporter’s own contribution which is mostly undisputed fact. The one point where there could be some minor lack of clarity concerns the means by which rats have reached Mokoia Island. The reporter states that swollen rivers are washing rats on to the island’s shores, while Mr Armstrong says that there are no rivers flowing into Lake Rotorua and no evidence that rats have reached the island by swimming. However it is obvious from the article that the reporter was repeating Mr Bhana’s statement rather than making a comment of her own – and in any event, although no rivers of any size flow into Lake Rotorua, a number of smaller streams and waterways do enter it.
The Media Council does not uphold the complaint.
Media Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Jenny Farrell, Ben France-Hudson, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.
Tracy Watkins took no part in the consideration of this complaint.