PETER GREEN AGAINST MEDIAWORKS NEWSHUB

Case Number: 2934

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Mediaworks

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Headlines and Captions
Misrepresentation, Deception or Subterfuge
Politicians
Unfair Coverage

Overview

1. A complaint that it was irresponsible for a news organisation to run an unscientific website survey on an important political subject and to report the results as though they were the result of a poll.

Background

2. The Newshub website posted an item on July 15, 2020 headlinedPoll: Who would you prefer as Prime Minister – Judith Collins or Jacinda Ardern?

3. The article, which included comment on the recent change of National Party leader, reported the results of a survey in whichNewshub readers were invited over a period of 24 hours to state who they would prefer as Prime Minister. It reported Judith Collins had 53 per cent support and Jacinda Ardern as having 47 per cent.

4. The article did not disclose how the survey was conducted or say how many people had taken part.A disclaimer noting that it an unscientific straw poll was added later as a footnote.

The Complaint

5. Peter Green complained that Newshub had promoted an unscientific website survey as a poll. It was also irresponsible for a news organisation to run unscientific surveys on important political subjects during an election campaign, and it was especially irresponsible to call them polls.

6. He cited the Polling Best Practice Guidelines for Media published by Research Association New Zealand which suggested the term “poll” should only be used for scientific polls done in accordance with market research industry approved guidelines and that the word “survey” should be used for self-selecting surveys such as text or website surveys.

7. By describing their unscientific survey as a poll, Newshub ran the risk of misleading readers and giving them the impression that the numbers came from a credible poll. Readers could believe this was useful information about the state of the election campaign despite being contradicted by real polls.

8. He said the item was in breach of Media Council principles 1 (accuracy, fairness and balance), 2 (comment and fact), 3 (headlines and captions) and 9 (subterfuge).

The Response

9. MediaWorks broadcasting standards manager Dianne Martin said her company’s standards committee was satisfied that the poll complied with Media Council principles. However, it had added some clarifications around this straw poll and would do so for future straw polls on the Newshub website.

10. Straw polls seeking reader engagement were a regular feature of the website and were clearly distinct from itsNewshub-Reid Research polls.

11. It was confident that reference to “poll” when describing this straw poll was not inaccurate or misleading for readers. Regular readers of the website were familiar with these polls and understood they had not been conducted scientifically.

12. However, it had recently made some changes to make the methodology of these polls clearer for readers. It would now use “Have Your Say” or “Question of The Day” in headlines and would add the following note to all such pollsDisclaimer: This straw poll is not scientific and closes after 24 hours.

The Decision

13. This complaint was fast-tracked because of the nature of the complaint and its timing in relation to the election campaign.

14. Mr Green cites a number of Media Council principles but essentially this complaint can be dealt with under principle 1 which states in partPublications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance and should not deliberatelymislead or misinform readers by commission or omission.

15. With this article a fair case can be made that it was misleading and that readers could have been left with the impression that this poll had some validity. The headline and story stated it was a poll of people’s Prime Ministerial preferences. There was no information stating what it was based on. Readers were not told it was an unscientific straw poll, that the question had not been put to a representative sample of the population and there was no indication as to how many people participated. A difficulty with surveys or polls based on on-line questions of readers like this, where anyone can enter a vote, is that they are prone to manipulation – political parties may encourage all their supporters to respond to skew the results in their favour.

16. The presentation of this survey was also troubling because of its timing in the lead up to the elections and because of its potential to be used to feed the fake news phenomenon.

17. However, we give credit to Newshub for its decision to promptly add a disclaimer to this story and its plan to make the methodology of these polls clearer for readers.Its commitment in future to use “Have Your Say” or “Questions of the Day” in headlines and add the disclaimer - This straw poll is not scientific and closes after 24 hours - will overcome the legitimate concerns raised in this complaint.

18. The Media Council finds it difficult to accept the argument that the term “poll” should only be used for scientific polls done in accordance with market research industry approved guidelines and that the word “survey” should be used for self-selecting surveys such as text or website surveys. The dictionary definitions of “poll” are general, and convey the broad concept of a survey where people are asked for their opinion about an issue.

19. It was not false to call this a poll as it was a survey or study where people were asked for their opinion. We recognise that in politics, where professional polls are common, calling it a poll can create a misleading impression. But in practice the terms poll and survey are widely used interchangeably and it would be unrealistic to attempt to enforce a narrower definition as suggested, providing the overall impression is not misleading.Here, after changes were promptly made, the overall impression was not misleading.

20.. For the reasons set out here the complaint is not upheld.

21. In considering this complaint the Media Council notes that polls and surveys similar to this one are a feature of the media landscape and are often used as a tool of engagement. There is no harm if the subject is relatively trivial and treated as a bit of fun. Informal polls or “vox pops” have been used by the media for many years. They can be entertaining and even a rough and ready guide as to what people think. The key issue is how they are presented to readers so they can judge their validity and weigh the value of the information conveyed.

22. It is not the Media Council’s role to limit the subjects on which people can be asked to give their opinions or stop publications doing informal polls prior to an election.


23. However, editors should take particular care. Using this kind of poll for a serious subject during an election campaign does undermine the reputation of the media as credible and responsibleThere is a real danger that results could be skewed for partisan purposes and editors need to be wary of the potential for stories to be used or misused as fake news fodder. (SeeCase 2739 Jenny Kirk v Newshub). Editors should also ensure readers are given the information they need to weigh a poll’s credibility.

RESULT

24. While we would have been inclined to uphold this complaint if the changes had not been made, given those changes, made promptly, which rectify any misleading impression, we do not uphold the complaint.