MIKE PEARLSTEIN AGAINST RNZ

Case Number: 3359

Council Meeting: DECEMBER 2022

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: Radio NZ

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance

Ruling Categories: Disinformation, Misinformation

Overview

1. On 13 August 2022 RNZ ran a story on its website headlined, COVID-19 Lab Leak Theory Debunked by Australian Professor Who’s Been Dubbed ‘The Virus Hunter’. Mike Pearlstein complained under the Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance. The complaint is not upheld.


The Article

2. This article, taken in full from the ABC, is a report of the research and views of Australian virologist, Professor Eddie Holmes, on the origins of COVID-19. Professor Holmes presents his conclusions that COVID-19 was not leaked from a laboratory but originated in live animal markets in Wuhan. He talks in detail about the account of animal to human virus transfer and the spatial mapping that led him to two markets as the likely source of COVID-19.

3. Professor Holmes said that while “science had ruled out the lab leak theory”, the belief that Chinese scientists had created the virus and that it had escaped from the lab had sparked conspiratorial theories that had spread around the globe. He added that “It has been as a vehicle to support some of Trump’s views.”

4. There is a reference in the article that while the World Health Organisation (WHO) ruled the lab leak theory unlikely it failed to rule it out entirely.

5. On 29 September RNZ updated the article in line with changes made by the ABC. The headline was altered to COVID-19 lab-leak theory challenged by Australian professor who has been dubbed the virus hunter and an addition to the body of the story describes a 2022 preliminary report by WHO saying it was important to consider scientific data to “evaluate the possibility of the introduction of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) into the human population through a laboratory incident.”

The Complaint

6. Mr Pearlstein acknowledges the updated version of the article but maintains his complaint on the basis that RNZ have not acknowledged that the original story, which was aired for over six weeks, was inaccurate and lacked balanced.

7. He complains that the headline …Lab Leak Theory Debunked by Australian Professor… is inaccurate because he believes it has not been debunked. He also says that the article is unbalanced because it lacks comment from other scientists, some who have criticised Professor Holmes’ work for what they claim was drawing strong conclusions from limited early case data with documented sampling bias.


The Response

8. RNZ stands by the wording of the heading in the original article, saying that given Professor Holmes extensive research into the possible sources of COVID-19 and his status as a professor and virologist that they are entitled to rely on his expert opinion, particularly his confidence that the virus is not from a laboratory. They say his opinions were based on facts arising from research and that debating competing theories to uncover the truth is what the scientific process is all about.

9. RNZ suggests that they are not obliged to “word count” for balance in an article on a controversial issue that is ongoing in the media. However, when they were alerted by Mr Pearlstein to the fact that ABC who supplied the original story had made changes, they opted to incorporate the updates into the RNZ story.

10. It also claims that the article differentiates Professor Holmes’ comments from the facts including that from his perspective he had debunked the lab-leak theory. RNZ concludes that given it was a ‘single-perspective’ story and that there was another significant point of view presented there is no issue of imbalance.

The Discussion

11. The complaint is about the inaccuracy of the use of the word “debunked” in the headline and the imbalance within the article for the omission of commentary in support of the COVID-19 lab-leak theory.

12. Consideration as to whether Professor Holmes has debunked the lab-leak theory requires an examination of the term debunk. RNZ reference the Oxford dictionary definition of debunk as: “…expose the falseness of (a claim).” A further definition is “to show that something is less important, less good, or less true than it has been made to appear” (Cambridge Dictionary). The Council considers the use of the word debunked was acceptable given that Professor Holmes was presenting evidence he said exposed flaws in the lab-leak theory.

13. Alternatively the article could be interpreted as simply a reflection of Professor Holmes work and opinion of the lab-leak-theory having been debunked. Both interpretations would lead to the same conclusion that that the use of the term debunked in this article is acceptable.

14. Professor Holmes’ research into the study of the origins of viruses spans many years and his work in mapping the evolution of COVID-19 earned him the 2021 Australian Prime Minister’s Award for Science and the 2021 New Wales Scientist of the Year Award. In the article he presents his research through spatial mapping to identify the origins of COVID-19 in 2 live markets in Wuhan.

15. Theories on the origins of COVID-19 have regularly featured in the media since the virus was initially identified. This article is primarily a report of Professor Holmes’ work and views on the origin of COVID-19 and his dismissal of the lab-leak as a “nonsensical theory.” It is clearly his opinion and one he is entitled to express. It is stated in the article that while the WHO ruled the lab-leak theory unlikely, it failed to rule it out entirely, alerting readers to the ongoing debate and providing some balance.

16. The Media Council Principle on balance also states that “exceptions may apply for long-running issues where every side of an issue or argument cannot reasonably be repeated on every occasion and …. where balance is to be judged on a number of stories, rather than a single report.” The matter of COVID-19 origins qualifies for this exception. There have been many stories on this subject and this one can be seen as just a current development in the controversy.

17. While this debate continues the Media Council finds that use of the term “debunked” was acceptable and that balance was addressed on this matter through ongoing public discussion and debate.

18. Decision: Not upheld on Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.

Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Hank Schouten, Jonathan Mackenzie, Scott Inglis, Tim Watkin, Ben France-Hudson, Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, , Marie Shroff, Alison Thom and Richard Pamatatau.

 

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