The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Dr Paul Corwin of Christchurch against an article on immunisation that appeared in The Press on 15 September 2001. The complaint is directed specifically at two paragraphs dealing with the views of a Christchurch GP, Dr Dave Ritchie, who had changed his mind in the late 1980s about the value of mass vaccination. The first paragraph on Dr Ritchie reads:

He says he was amazed at the amount of literature questioning the procedures and even the rationale of immunisation. Since then, he has devoted most of his time to studying the latest evidence on vaccination and is regarded as a world expert.

Dr Corwin considers that the second sentence, lacking any quotation marks, is to be read as a factual statement about the extent of Dr Ritchie’s research and his international standing. Dr Corwin says be has found no evidence to support these claims, and believes that the reporter’s failure to check them has accorded Dr Ritchie unwarranted credibility.

The other paragraph complained of comes a little later in the reporting of Dr Ritchie’s views:

He says in Sweden, whooping cough vaccinations were stopped in 1979. “Many children contracted the disease between the age of three and five years, which is the natural time to get whooping cough, but the country has not gone back to immunising because of the risk of side effects from the vaccine.”

Dr Corwin complained that the reporter fails to point out that vaccinations were restarted as it was found that Sweden suffered a catastrophic number of cases of whooping cough. To that extent Dr Ritchie’s claim “ the country has not gone back to immunising” is wrong.

The complainant said that insufficient background research had been done in preparing the article, and that the net effect of the demonstrably false statements would lead any reader to conclude that immunisation is unjustified.

The editor of The Press said in reply that the article was an account of the immunisation debate rather than an investigation into the validity of the points its participants made, and that this was a common and acceptable type of journalism. He accepted that the first paragraph complained of could have made clearer that the newspaper was summarising Dr Ritchie’s view of his own expertise. He also accepted that the article would have been better if the claim that Sweden still banned the vaccine had been checked. The editor said that the newspaper had been happy for Dr Corwin to put the record straight in his letter to the editor (published on 20 September). He strongly defended the article’s overall balance in reporting differing views on immunisation, and believed that Dr Corwin was attaching undue weight to these particular items within it. He rejected Dr Corwin’s assertion as to the net effect of the article on readers.

The Press Council considers that the article is well-constructed and well-balanced. Its tenor is accurately conveyed by its heading and standfirst: “Pricked by a dilemma - The Minisriy of Health is stepping up efforts to improve the rates of immunisation in New Zealand. Although many medical professionals back vaccinating our young, there are words of caution.”
It presents information on the Ministry of Health policy (with a photo tied to part of the text), then the views of a practitioner who is a strong supporter of vaccination (with his photo), then the views of Dr Ritchie, and, finally, some comments from others.

Newspapers strive for total accuracy, but are not infallible. The editor was commendably frank in acknowledging the imperfections in the article, and was prompt in printing Dr Corwin’s sharp letter pointing them out. The Press Council thinks that the failure to follow up the statement about Sweden and ascertain the current policy there was the more serious omission, but does not believe that these failings in an otherwise sound article would have had the drastic effect Dr Corwin attributes to them. They are not grave enough to require formal censure from the Press Council.

The complaint is not upheld.


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