FERN HICKSON AGAINST THE NELSON MAIL

Case Number: 3327

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2022

Decision: Upheld

Publication: Nelson Mail

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance
Corrections

Ruling Categories: Advocacy
Bias
Unfair Coverage

Overview

On 10 June 2022, the Nelson Mail published a story headlined Transgender conference sparks fierce national backlash. The story also appeared on Stuff. Fern Hickson complains that the article breached Principle (1) Accuracy, fairness and balance, and that Stuff has breached the same principle over a long period in its coverage of transgender issues. The complaint is upheld under Principle (12) Corrections. The complaint is not upheld under Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.

The Article

The story said a planned Nelson conference on the “negative” impacts of transgenderism had caused outrage across the rainbow community. It listed some of the topics for discussion and described one of the speakers, Fern Hickson, as a “detransitioner”. It reported the statement of one speaker who had pulled out saying he did not support the organisers' values. A petition asking the venue to cancel arrangements for the conference was being circulated. A GP who worked with the rainbow community said the event was “outrageous” and “wrong”. A university researcher said speakers such as those at the conference should not be given a platform, as it was “fear mongering”. Puberty blockers were safe and regret rates for those who had gender-affirming surgery were less than 1 or 2 percent, they said. The story said the Child and Adolescent Therapists Association of Aotearoa New Zealand (CATA), the group organising the conference, provided a statement saying they wanted to “provide information from a child development position”.

The Complaint

Fern Hickson complained about the 10 June story but also about Stuff’s overall coverage of transgender issues, which she said was clearly partisan. Stuff embraced many transgender beliefs as if they were facts, she said, citing examples including that it had “replaced the word ‘sex’ with the nebulous word ‘gender’” in the organisation’s discrimination standard. Ms Hickson said she had audited Stuff’s coverage. From January 2020 to June 2022 Stuff had reported at least 58 times from a “transgender-supportive perspective” and only once from a perspective that questioned transgender beliefs. Transitioning was glorified and long-term side effects, such as sterility and loss of sexual function were not mentioned, she said. Stuff had ignored international stories covering concerns about the treatment of gender dysphoria. A responsible, balanced media would delve into these issue, Ms Hickson said.

Regarding the 10 June story, Ms Hickson said it was unfair that she had been named in a “pejorative” Stuff and Nelson Mail story without being asked for comment. As well as being labelled incorrectly as a “detransitioner”, she was the only speaker named, linking her to the claims the conference was “outrageous” and “wrong”. The online story was changed to remove the “detransitioner” error, but the correction published in the Nelson Mail was not satisfactory as there was no apology, the correction only said she was a teacher and did not clearly state she was not a detransitioner.

The Nelson Mail offered the opportunity to submit an opinion piece to provide balance but Stuff editors deemed the piece she offered pejorative and prejudiced and a rewritten piece was similarly rejected. Stuff offered to run the original story again with the addition of quotes from Ms Hickson, but she rejected this offer saying it would only repeat the untruths about the conference and “besmirch my name all over again”.

The story was also unbalanced and inaccurate, Ms Hickson said, with no attempt to investigate opposing views or check statements for accuracy. She provided links to other stories and studies that challenged the opinions about transgender issues that dominated the Nelson Mail story.

The organisers of the conference had provided a statement on 17 June in response to the 11 June story, she said. However this was not published until 26 June, and even then half the second story was devoted to criticism of the conference.

The Response

Stuff acknowledged that Ms Hickson had been incorrectly described as a “detransitioner” in the article. It was an honest mistake, due to the reporter mis-reading information on the conference website, they said. Stuff was alerted to the mistake at 10.30pm on June 10 and the correction was made to the online story early the next morning. A correction ran in the next issue of the Nelson Mail.

Four conference organisers had been approached for comment, the reporter waited three days for a reply, but organisers only provided a one-line statement. After publication, Stuff received a number of complaints about lack of balance, and at the end of the following week a statement from CATA was received. This was published nine days later on June 26. Stuff said the delay was due to the Nelson Mail not publishing every day, lack of space and the fact that the conference was not being held until August.

Ms Hickson’s assertion that Stuff failed to publish her opinion piece “without good reason” was disputed by Stuff. Editors decided it did not meet the standards of Stuff’s Editorial Code of Practice and Ethics regarding Diversity, discrimination and prejudice. Stuff was under no obligation to publish opinion pieces as a right of reply.

Stuff also addressed Ms Hickson’s more general complaint, about what she said was Stuff’s long-standing lack of accuracy, fairness and balance on transgender issues.

“Stuff takes the position that transgender people do exist,” Stuff said. “Under the New Zealand Human Rights Act gender identity is protected against discrimination and we take a human rights standpoint in our reporting on transgender issues. Reporting the views of people who take a prejudiced approach to transgender issues is not providing balance.”

A similar issue arose in the reporting of climate change, where it was not a requirement to include comments from climate change deniers for balance.

Stuff said its reporting on transgender issues was impartial, but that did not mean giving a platform to “voices who deny the very existence of other New Zealanders in harmful and prejudicial ways”. Stuff considered Ms Hickson’s comments questioning the existence of multiple genders and statements about “the dangers of transgender ideology” fall into that category.

In further correspondence Ms Hickson disputed the comparison between climate change and transgender issues. “People are free to believe they have a gender identity, as they are free to believe they have a religious soul, but Stuff should not take a position on something that is a matter of belief and is not scientifically provable.”

Stuff’s policy in favour of transgender beliefs had precluded it from reporting on international changes in best care for “gender questioning children”, she said.

The Discussion

The complaint alleges breaches of Principle (1) Accuracy, fairness and balance and has several strands.

Ms Hickson says she was unfairly dealt with, because the initial story referred to her as a “detransitioner” when she was not. The Council accepts Stuff’s assertion that this was a genuine mistake; the Nelson Mail apologised in an email to Ms Hickson and the correction was swift. However, the correction published in the Nelson Mail was inadequate, particularly given the fact that the story had given incorrect personal information about a named individual. The correction read: “A story published on Saturday about a transgender conference in Nelson said Fern Hickson is a detransitioner. She is a teacher.” The council believes the correction should have clearly stated that she was not a detransitioner, removing all ambiguity. This aspect of the complaint is upheld under Principle (12) Corrections.

Ms Hickson also complains that the story is unbalanced, and on the face of it, it is heavily weighted towards those who disapprove of the conference and the views of some who were speaking at it. However, Stuff approached the conference organisers and gave them a reasonable time to respond. Their short response was included. It is difficult for news outlets to produce a balanced report if those being criticised are unwilling to put forward their point of view. CATA did respond after the story was published and their response was included in a second story. Stuff says it was published nine days after it was received on June 26, with the delay due to several factors. Given the level of criticism in the first story, the Council considers it would have been better to have published the second story sooner, but it is difficult to know with certainty whether this would have been possible. This story did include a robust defence of the conference organisers’ position and so provided a degree of balance.

Ms Hickson asked the Nelson Mail to publish an opinion piece to provide balance, but the paper rejected the pieces she wrote. The Council considers editors have the discretion to decide which opinion pieces to publish.

In summary, the complaint under Principle (1) about the June 10 story is Not Upheld because the conference organisers’ unwillingness to respond made it difficult for balance to be provided and the June 26 story provided adequate balancing material.

The question of whether Stuff’s overall approach to transgender issues is biased is more difficult. Stuff takes the view that giving a voice to certain opinions on transgender issues amounts to giving a platform to prejudice and views that might cause harm. The Council believes Stuff has the right to take this position.

However coverage of the debate about the treatment of gender dysphoria in children is slightly different. This is a sensitive, complicated and important topic, where there appears to be evolving scientific debate. The Council rejects Stuff’s argument that it is analogous to climate change. In the case of climate change there is an overwhelming consensus of scientific opinion, whereas on the issue of childhood gender dysphoria there seems to be a variety of genuinely held and differing opinions internationally.

Ms Hickson asserts that the balance of Stuff’s coverage is firmly in favour of the “transgendersupportive perspective”. The Council does not have the resources to carry out its own research to verify this but hopes Stuff and other media outlets will consider whether they are taking a balanced approach overall. It is important that all reasonable views are allowed to be heard, given the seriousness of the matters under consideration. Despite these reservations, the Council believes that there is insufficient evidence to uphold a complaint under Principle (1) and trusts that Stuff and other media outlets will keep a watching brief on developments in this area and cover it in a balanced manner.

Decision: The complaint is Upheld under Principle (12) Corrections. The complaint is Not Upheld under Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.

Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (chair); Hank Schouten; Rosemary Barraclough; Tim Watkin; Scott Inglis; Ben France-Hudson; Judi Jones; Marie Shroff; Alison Thom; Richard Pamatatau.



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