NEW ZEALAND DERMATOLOGICAL SOCIETY Inc AGAINST STUFF
Case Number: 3216
Council Meeting: FEBRUARY 2022
Conflict of Interest
1. Louise Reiche, on behalf of The New Zealand Dermatological Society (NZDSI), has complained about an article headlined ‘Sunscreen 101: advice for every skin type”, published by Stuff on November 18, 2021.
2. The article advises readers on the use of sunscreen during the approaching summer and warns against melanoma. The journalist relies on expertise from Melanoma NZ chief executive Andrea Newland and the complainant, Louise Reiche, “a registered dermatologist representing the New Zealand Dermatology Society (NZDSI)”. Dr Reiche offers sunscreen advice for children, older people, those who are going swimming and more.
3. “Sunscreen 101” appears in Stuff’s Life & Style section and in a sub-section labelled “shop”. Amidst Dr Reiche’s advice for various skin types Stuff features images of specific sunscreen brands with italicised tagline, eg under ‘For Sensitive Skin’ the article reads, “One option to try: Nivea Sun Sensitive Lotion SPF50”. Beside the image is a plus sign. If you click on it you are presented with a link to buy the product and the price. Each link takes you to a retail site.
4. Five sunscreens are displayed in this way along with three hats, two pairs of sunglasses, a tunic and an umbrella. The fifth sunscreen displayed carries the tagline, “One option to try: Smart365 Sunscreen Lotion SPF50+ from The Warehouse”.
5. The complainant first wrote to the digital producer who wrote the story the morning after it appeared online, saying she had been misled.
6. Dr Reiche says the NZDSI is happy to provide expert comment on skin conditions and good healthcare and understood that was the purpose of the interview. Instead, her quotes were woven into an article that implied her endorsement of the products displayed in the story. “We believe it is abusive of our generosity of time, expertise, NZDSI integrity and good name”, she wrote, asking for an apology and donation to the NZDSI’s charity.
7. Responding to an initial reply from a Stuff editor, Dr Reiche said it only confirmed her concern that the information the NZDSI provided in good faith was used to “maximise commercial gain” and offer “false implicit endorsement of sundry commercial products”.
8. Dr Reiche concludes that Stuff’s lack of transparency around how her quotes would be used risks irrevocably damaging the goodwill of sources and trust of readers. She accuses Stuff of “subterfuge” and says the NZDSI now prefers to provide comment only to other media.
9. Stuff’s Editor in Chief, Verticals, Geoff Collett says the complaint is neither fair nor justified. Although he thanks Dr Reiche for raising her concerns, he stands by his decision to run the story in this form as one that “is well within our ethical standards”.
10. Collett says sunscreen articles are summer staples and this was a straightforward guide to help readers make an informed purchasing decision. Links were included allowing readers “to investigate purchase options for the products in question”.
11. He writes that the journalist approached experts because she “wanted to align specific sunscreens with the general advice received, which we consider is a reasonable and practical service to perform for readers in such lifestyle content”. She asked Dr Reiche about individual sunscreens to recommend and was directed to a Consumer NZ list that she relied on as her primary source for the suggested products. The exception to this was a particular sunscreen suggested by Melanoma NZ.
12. The story did not say the NZDSI endorsed the selected sunscreens; they were displayed with the text “one option to try”. If the Society had expressed any concerns about the quality of any of those products they would have removed them.
13. Given the journalist raised the question in the interview, the complainant was aware specific sunscreens would be mentioned in the article.
14. Collett believes the Society’s concern stems from the mistaken belief that Stuff directly profited from these product placements. It did not and the article was not “written to support a commercial arrangement with The Warehouse”.
15. He accepts responsibility for “an initial error” that misled the NZDSI. The story carried the footnote disclosure: “Our journalists produced this article in response to a commercial arrangement with The Warehouse. Click here for more information on Stuff’s advertising-related content”. That statement was incorrect and replaced with: “Click to buy links are at Stuff’s editorial discretion, but this article includes one for our advertising partner The Warehouse”. Collett expected that clarification to satisfy the complainant.
16. He stresses that the complainant is wrong when she says the article was an effort to “maximise commercial gain”. These are not “affiliate links” where Stuff would get a commission from any sale. “There is no revenue opportunity for Stuff from including these links in the article. These links were added at the editor’s discretion”.
17. However, Collett adds that they were included at the request of Stuff’s advertising department. Its staff had asked the lifestyle editor to consider featuring links to products sold at The Warehouse in “a small number of articles” as a way to “indirectly support Stuff’s broader commercial relationship with the advertiser”. No money changed hands directly and it was only agreed to include The Warehouse products on the condition a disclosure was added.
18. Collett felt the request from Dr Reiche to donate money to the NZDSI’s research charity as a means of resolving the issue was “inappropriate”.
19. Stuff utterly denies any subterfuge. Collett says that, to the contrary, the confusion came because Stuff was trying to transparently disclose “a comparatively minor commercial connection”. He believes Stuff has acted in accordance with the Council’s Principle 10, Conflicts of Interest.
20. This thoughtful complaint raises two significant issues for the Council to consider. First, the use of advertising embedded into editorial. Second, the use of an outside expert’s quotes in this format and the transparency around how they were used.
21. Despite Stuff’s argument that this format is common and uncontroversial, the Council believes it raises serious questions for New Zealand media. While the complaint could well have been upheld under Principle 10 Conflicts of Interest or the preamble’s commitment to “the highest professional standards”, we have instead decided to flag this issue and ask the industry to consider whether such stories keep it free of obligations and how much it compromises its independence.
22. At face value this article – indeed this format – is a clear merging of editorial and advertising and that lack of separation leaves readers unclear as to what is independent reporting and what is advertising material offered for commercial gain. While stories about products are commonplace, an unattributed suggestion “to try” a certain product and a link direct to a retailer from inside an article is much rarer. At a time when media are fighting hard to retain public trust in the independence and quality of their reporting, that seems risky in the extreme and something of concern to the entire industry.
23. As a standards body it is not our place to tell a media company how to run its business. We are sensitive to media’s financial pressures and the resultant blurring of lines between editorial and advertising in recent years. Yet it remains our role to flag situations where we see editorial standards in peril. This example of what Stuff calls “commercially-influenced content” is one of those.
24. The Council is often asked to rule where media have crossed or failed to respect a line, maybe between comment and fact, or privacy and the public interest; sometimes between editorial and advertorial. The line here seems to be blurred, to say the least.
25. This article is clearly editorial, not paid-for advertorial clearly labelled as such, therefore it needs to meet editorial principles. Because it sits in Stuff’s ‘shop’ section, it could be argued that it should be subject to lower standards. However, when it appears on the website amongst other news stories, covers public health issues, likely generates much of its traffic direct from Search, and is laid out to look the same as, say, a politics or foreign affairs article, it must be asked if the line between editorial and advertising is sufficiently clear to readers.
26. Collet has defended the format as “common practice” and points to a number of links as examples. But the Council notes that while they all have links to retail, the context of each is rather different. In the LA Times example, the celebrity interviewed has volunteered the fashion items and openly endorsed them as personal favourites. The Viva piece is about cosmetics recommended by their own writer while the UK Telegraph article is advice from their own fashion columnist and is clearly labelled “a guide to the best buys”. None quote independent experts, and all those making the recommendations have suggested the products themselves. We don’t know how independent the selections were.
27. Council principles are meant to ensure readers can expect that anything offered as editorial includes only accurate, fair and balanced reporting that is verified and free from outside influence and obligation. Yet the process as Collett describes it shows Stuff’s advertising department can ask for favours on behalf of clients before a story is written and Stuff editors will add content that “supports Stuff’s broader commercial relationship with the advertiser”. While the text reporting the interviews with Dr Reiche and Ms Newland lives up to Council principles, the product placement does not.
28. Stuff has taken a Consumer NZ list but does not seem to have done anything to verify the claims the article makes for the products, including talking to Consumer NZ. Indeed, what journalist could be reasonably expected to establish whether, for example, Nivea’s Sun Face UV Shine Control is worth singling out as good “for oily acne prone skin”? The choice of that product shows the problems of this format, as it contradicts Dr Reiche’s advice. It is advertised as a “cream” yet in the text beside it Dr Reiche urges folk with oily skin to use gels and lotions and avoid creams.
29. Next there’s the question of the advertising department’s influence over Stuff’s supposedly independent decision to feature the Smart365 lotion and spell out in the article that is available “from the Warehouse”. The clear implication from Collett’s response is that it was chosen because he and the lifestyle editor were asked to include it by the advertising department. Therefore that tagline goes even further than the others into perilous territory. That Stuff did not profit directly from this mention is of no comfort, when editors are making decisions so as to “support” certain advertisers and are coming under pressure to give them “an added bonus”. The Council finds that troubling. The disclosure at the bottom of the story gives readers no information on which parts of the article they can trust.
30. The importance of safeguarding the public’s trust in an independent media free from outside influence, especially when quoting scientists and reporting on issues such as healthcare, can be seen in other complaints currently before the Council. The same Stuff editor who responded to this complaint also responded to a complaint about Stuff’s Covid coverage, arguing “Stuff maintains a strict dividing line between its commercial/corporate interests and its editorial obligations. Our journalistic independence and integrity are fundamental to our work”.
31. The line between Stuff’s editorial obligations and commercial interests looks far from “strict” in this instance and the Council hopes that this discussion prompts some reflection in the industry.
32. Finally on this first point, we want to stress the importance of independent experts being able to trust media to treat their expertise with respect (or scepticism when necessary) and provide the public with accurate information untainted by commercial influence. This is especially true at a time when expertise is under attack from misinformation and disinformation. The media relies on experts being willing to freely give of their time and expertise and as Dr Reiche notes, that needs to be a “respectful two-way relationship”. As a result of this story and complaint, during which the NZDSI has felt “ethically abused” and “dismissed”, that trust has clearly been damaged.
33. Second, we come to the handling of the Dr Reiche interview. Collett says that the journalist asked Dr Reiche about individual sunscreens to recommend, so it was clear to the complainant that specific products would be referenced. He believes her concern was prompted by Stuff’s use of the incorrect disclosure, suggesting Stuff profited from the article when it did not.
34. While the Council recognises Stuff’s efforts to remedy its mistake around the disclosure, it disagrees that that is the key error.
35. Dr Reiche’s complaint makes clear that she did not understand that her quotes would be used in this way. And even by Stuff’s account of events, it is understandable that she would be shocked to see the interview presented as it was. She is unhappy with the way her advice is wrapped around product placement, not with the disclosure.
36. The comments by Dr Reiche all speak to advice on sunscreens relating to different skin types but none offer advice on the products displayed in the story (and as noted, at least one of the products chosen appears to be at odds with her advice). Collett’s version of events confirms that Dr Reiche pointed the journalist to a Consumer NZ product list, implying that she did not want to endorse specific products. Only one interview is mentioned and the journalist could only have sought out the list after Dr Reiche pointed her to it in that interview. Dr Reiche has confirmed she did not refer to any specific product yet that is exactly the impression created by the story and the reason Dr Reiche has laid her complaint.
37. Contrary to Collett’s assertion, many casual readers would assume that the NZDSI was endorsing the products displayed in the story for use by those skin types.
38. This confusion may matter less when relating to fashion or cosmetics, but when a reputable scientist is being asked to advise New Zealanders on how to avoid a disease that, as the article says, kills “more than 350 Kiwis” a year, unequivocal independence is critical.
39. While Dr Reiche complains under Principle 9, Subterfuge, the Council considers it better dealt with under Principle 1, Accuracy, Fairness and Balance and Principle 10, Conflicts of Interest.
40. Stuff’s approach lacked transparency, but it does not amount to “subterfuge” as Dr Reiche claims.
41. However Stuff’s decision to weave an interview with a scientist about safe sunscreen use through a range of product placements was not fair on Dr Reiche and was not an accurate representation of what she had to say. It implied endorsement of certain brands that she and the NZDSI never gave.
42. The complaint is not upheld under Principle 10, although as discussed we hope this ruling will prompt debate around media’s need to be independent and free of external obligations, including commercial ones.
43. The complaint is upheld under Principle 1.
44. The article was unfair to Dr Reiche and NZDSI and misleading to readers who would have thought the products suggested were endorsed by NZDSI.
45. We note the complainant has brought up the matter of a koha. The Council confirms, as noted in the Statement of Principles, that monetary recompense is outside its remit and has no comment to make on this aspect.
Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Judi Jones, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Reina Vaai and Tim Watkin.