MARK ATKIN AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2830

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2019

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Bias
Photographs

Overview

1. Mark Atkin complains about an article headed “Fluoride still not in Hastings water supply, a year after the council said it would be” and published by Stuff on August 2, 2019.He considers the article breached Principles 1 (accuracy fairness and balance and 11 (Photographs and Graphics) of the Media Council principles.

2. The Media Council does not uphold the complaint.

Background

3. The article in question commented on the delay in re-introducing fluoride to the Hastings water supply after the dosing system used for fluoridation had been used instead for chlorine after an outbreak of illness in 2016. The article included comment from a council officer explaining the delay and further comment from the Hawkes Bay chief medical and dental officer, Dr Robin Whyman, expressing concern about the effect of the delay on dental health, particularly that of children. The article was accompanied by a file photograph of a young child’s mouth with severely decayed teeth

The Complaint

4. Mr Atkin complains that the article is inaccurate and unbalanced. He has particular concerns about the use of the photograph which, he says, depicts a child with “Early Childhood Caries”, caused by putting a child down to sleep with a bottle of sugar-containing liquid. This is not a condition that can be prevented by the use of fluoride. He considers the photograph to be “scaremongering”.

5. Mr Atkin has supplied a substantial amount of information in support of his view that fluoridation of water supplies is ineffective and unnecessary and complains that the article, especially Dr Whyman’s remarks, promotes the use of fluoride without giving any space to contrary views. In addition, some of the material supplied by Dr Whyman was inaccurate, he said.

6. A further concern was that Stuff had failed to respond to his initial complaint of August 7, 2019.

The Response

7. Seamus Boyer, Chief News Director, responded on behalf of Stuff. He supplied a copy of an email he had sent to Mr Atkin on August 15 in response to his original complaint.

8. Mr Boyer submits that the article is about the decision of a specific council on the re-introduction of fluoride after a specific event. It is not, nor is it intended to be about the debate over the efficacy of fluoridated water.

9. Mr Atkin disputes the accuracy of information provided by Dr Whyman. Stuff quoted her, as an expert in her field, in good faith. In any event, Mr Atkin agrees that, as stated by Dr Whyman, there is a 20% differential between fluoridated and non-fluoridated parts of Hawke’s Bay.

10. The photograph is simply a generic file picture (clearly acknowledged as such in the caption) of tooth decay in a child of unknown age. It was chosen to illustrate tooth decay and there was no intention of scaremongering.

The Decision

11. Principle 1 requires publications to observe accuracy, fairness and balance in their reporting.On the questions of fairness and balance, while it is true to say that the article in question gives no space to anti-fluoridation views, this is not an article about the benefits or otherwise of the fluoridation of drinking water. It is an article about the delay in re-introducing fluoride to the Hastings water supply and consequent concerns expressed by health authorities. In addition, the benefits and disadvantages of fluoridation have been extensively debated in the media for a considerable period of time. Balance is not required in every article when covering a long-running issue.

12. Mr Atkin disputes the accuracy of some of Dr Whyman’s reported statements. However, there is no suggestion that Dr Whyman has been inaccurately reported, he is an acknowledged expert in his field, and in any event, he is expressing the reasons for the District Health Board’s concerns about the delay and only incidentally an opinion on the merits of fluoridation.

13. Principle 11 requires editors to take care in photographic and image selection and treatment. Principle 1 (accuracy) also applies to photographic captions. The photograph in question is a picture of a condition that, it seems, is not linked to absence of fluoridated water, and the caption mentions tooth decay in Hastings children. However, Stuff did not claim that the photograph was of a Hawke’s Bay child (it is clearly labelled “file photo”) or that it depicted tooth decay resulting from unfluoridated water.The Media Council has concluded that while more care could have been taken to avoid any possible misleading impression, and a more generic caption would have been preferable, there is a great deal of information available from numerous sources about the prevention of tooth decay in children, and it is unlikely that a reader of the Stuff article would be led to believe that Hastings children “will all end up with mouths full of rotten teeth like the picture” as claimed by Mr Atkin.It is a picture of a severe case of tooth decay, illustrating an article relevant to the prevention of tooth decay.

Determination

The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

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