NEW ZEALAND FRESHWATER SCIENCES SOCIETY AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2888

Council Meeting: MARCH 2020

Verdict: Upheld with Dissent

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Balance, Lack Of
Discrimination
Headlines and Captions
Sensationalism
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. On 23 February 2020 Stuff published an article headlined Whitebaiter blames ‘chick scientists’ for Government proposals. The opening sentence of the report said: “A Fish and Game councillor believes court action should be investigated if proposals – influenced by “chick scientists” who think whitebaiters should hold hands and sing kumbaya – are in fact passed.” The councillor, Ken Cochrane, was quoted again a little further down the article explaining his views.“What I’m listening to is a whole bunch of chick scientists – and if you really looked at the view they were pitching – (it) was everybody in New Zealand should not shave their armpits, they should wear dreadlocks, and when they go whitebaiting they should do it in jandals only. And after they catch one patty for tea they should sit down and sing kumbaya.” The Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage was reported in the article complained of, but as saying only that whitebait is a cherished part of kiwi culture and she wanted to see whitebait numbers flourish, while maintaining a healthy fishery long-term. Subsequently, Stuff published counterbalancing comments from the Minister and others, and a related editorial headedLet’s not bait our scientists like this.

The complaint was upheld by a majority of Council members 5:4. See the dissenting view below.

The Complaint

2. The complainant, the NZ Freshwater Sciences Society, in an initial message from the President, Kate McArthur, said they were “appalled and disappointed…It seemsStuff is happy to perpetuate and spread misogynist views on women in science for a cheap headline grab.” In following correspondence the Society saidStuff had breached Principle 1 (accuracy fairness and balance) because no counter view was provided in the article, Principle 6 (headlines) and Principle 7 (discrimination and diversity) by giving gratuitous emphasis to a discriminatory comment by normalising sexism and perpetuating misogynist views in a gratuitous way.


The Response

3. In an initial response to the complainant, in refusing to make a change to the article, Janine Fenwick, Deputy Editor of Stuff, said the “ridiculous quote….highlights how archaic his (Cochrane’s) point of view is”. In a later response to the CouncilStuff said the article was straight reporting in the public interest of “contentious comments made by an elected representative…..for which he has now been held to account”. The story and its presentation clearly indicated that “chick scientists” was a direct quote from Ken Cochrane. The headline covered a key element of the story; on the gratuitous emphasis issue, the editor says Mr Cochrane’s comments were a reflection of the most significant moment in the meeting reported on; and says it was in the public interest to report Mr Cochrane’s comments. Balance and fairness was provided by subsequent reporting.

4. Ms Fenwick agrees that women have long been discriminated against in sciences and referred to several articles whereStuff has covered the issue of sexism in science. She said the article and the follow up reporting did not perpetuate sexism but achieved the opposite, as the condemnation of Mr Cochrane’s comments was swift and clear. This, in the editor’s view, justifies the angling of the article, which highlighted Mr Cochrane’s comments. She believes that “HadStuff not drawn attention to Cochrane’s comments, it is unlikely he would have been held to account for them.”

The Decision

5. The complainants the Freshwater Sciences Society on the one hand, and the publisherStuff on the other hand, put forward strong arguments on both sides of the issue. The story was undoubtedly newsworthy and led to the exposure of controversial, many would say very offensive, views about women and about a group in society supporting conservation. Stuff is to be commended for exposing that and for the subsequent reporting of alternative views which supported the value of women in science.

6. Headline: Principle 6 provides that headlines should accurately convey a key element of the report. The headline complained of contains a slang word “chick” meaning a female. The word chick used in this way is defined across a number of dictionary sources as offensive to many people, although not to all. However, given that quote marks were used, and that the headline undoubtedly conveyed a key element of the story,the complaint against the headline is not upheld. The Council notes, however, thatStuff may be judged adversely by some members of the public because it chose to highlight this derogatory term about women in a headline and refused to make a change.

7. Discrimination: Principle 7 discrimination and diversity, provides that gender issues are legitimate subjects for discussion, where relevant and in the public interest, but that reporting should not use gratuitous emphasis. The editor makes a strong argument that it was in the public interest to highlight Mr Cochrane’s comments, and thatStuff reporting means that he has now been held to account. But the complainant also makes a strong argument, that the term “chick scientists” in the headline was gratuitous and served to perpetuate the use of a discriminatory, derogatory and offensive term. In the Council’s view it would be useful for media consider whether using a provocative, derogatory term in a headline for its shock value and to promote controversy is an acceptable practice.On balance the complaint on discrimination is not upheld as the issue of unfairness is dealt with under Principle 1 below.

8. Balance and fairness: Principle 1, accuracy, fairness and balance, provides that in matters of controversy, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view. The comment complained of in the article is controversial, and no counterbalancing view is given. It would have been possible to approach the scientists concerned or the Department of Conservation, or any number of authoritative science sources for a quick comment, to provide some balance against the controversial views of Mr Cochrane. Later coverage gave a counterbalancing view, but this was not a well known, ongoing debate where latitude might be given for a single unbalanced report. The complainants, a group of professional scientists, clearly believe damage was done by the unbalanced report.

9. The Council agrees with the editor that this was a story worthy of reporting, and that the consequences of its publication went some way to address balance. But in the Council’s view, damage was done by the unrelievedly derogatory, denigratory and sexist view covered so strongly by the headline, lead sentence and the further reporting in the article, of Mr Cochrane’s views on “chick scientists”. This supports the complainants’ view that the story “normalises and perpetuates sexism in society” and in relation to women in science, and was not balanced. It is regrettable that the Stuff story, although a strong and valuable piece of reporting, had no balancing comment at all.

10. The complaint on fairness and balance is upheld by a majority of Council members:Hon Raynor Asher, Liz Brown, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff and Pravina Singh.

Dissent

Four members of the Media Council, Jo Cribb, Craig Cooper, Jonathan MacKenzie and Tim Watkin, dissented from the majority decision and would not have upheld any aspect of the complaint.

The comments that Mr Cochrane made are derogatory, denigratory and sexist. As dissenters, we agree with the complainant that the comments "normalise and perpetuate sexism and society".

The media has an important role in ensuring the public knows when those in positions of authority behave in such a way. 'Sunlight' is a powerful tool in challenging such unacceptable behaviour. ThatStuff did so decisively (with a clear headline) and with follow up articles should be celebrated. This resulted in a public outcry against Mr Cochrane, including calls for his resignation.

As dissenters, we do not wish to dissuade publications from highlighting unacceptable behaviour from public figures. Indeed we wish to encourage it. We would not have upheld this complaint, instead focused on acknowledging how important such reporting is.

Rosemary Barraclough stood down so a public member majority was maintained.