RULING BY THE NEW ZEALAND MEDIA COUNCIL IN THE COMPLAINT OF JAMES MAUNDER AGAINST RADIO NEW ZEALAND

Case Number: 3330

Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2022

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: Radio NZ

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance

Ruling Categories: Politicians

Overview

Mr James Maunder makes a complaint that a RNZ article entitled Covid-19: NZ to stay in orange traffic light setting published on 30 June 2022 contained factually incorrect information, potentially breaching Media Council Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.

The Article

In this article the Covid-19 Response Minister, Ayesha Verrall states that New Zealand will remain on the orange traffic light setting and gives advice on vaccinations, Covid-19 reinfection and mask wearing and ventilation in schools. While the article is primarily an update on Covid-19 there is also a reference to the expansion of free flu vaccinations for all children 3 to 13. Following on from this she encourages “New Zealanders to get vaccinated to help relieve pressure on the health system, as unvaccinated people are over-represented in hospital.”

The Complaint

Mr Maunder complains that Ms Verrall’s statement in the article that unvaccinated people are over-represented in hospital admissions is not reflected in the Covid-19 data. He references a chart, Vaccination status of population and 7 day rolling average of new cases and hospitalisations that he accessed on RNZ’s Covid-19 data visualisations: NZ in numbers webpage. The chart shows that in the week of 3 July 2022 Covid-19 unvaccinated make up 6% of the population and 6% of those hospitalised with Covid-19, leading Mr Maunder to conclude at that time the unvaccinated were not over-represented in Covid-19 hospitalisation statistics as stated by the Minister.

In further communications with RNZ Mr Maunder states that he has no issue with the publication quoting verbatim the cabinet minister even though they are ‘factually incorrect”. He does object to those facts not being scrutinised for accuracy by the reporter, hence the complaint.

The Response

In their response to Mr Maunder, RNZ states that they were “entitled to rely on the words of the cabinet minister directly responsible for the topic being reported on.” They say that there is a lack of clarity in which time period the Minister is referring to in her statement about the unvaccinated being more highly hospitalised, so she could have been referring to a time earlier in the epidemic when unvaccinated hospitalisations were over-represented. RNZ says that the public have a right to know what Ms Verrall believes and is saying on this matter, whether proven or not.

They say that the key focus of the article was the announcement that NZ would remain on the orange light setting rather than a detailed analysis of Covid related hospitalisations and maintain that it would be an unreasonable burden to fact check every opinion shared by a cabinet minister or to seek clarification on every point that cabinet minister might make, particularly in this instance in relation to time frames.

In their response RNZ reference Ministry of Health data and commentary which show disproportionately high levels of unvaccinated hospital admissions from early in the Omicron outbreak until recently.

In conclusion RNZ states that “it is apparent that unvaccinated people have been overrepresented in those statistics (hospitalisation)”, depending on which particular time period statistics were sourced from.

The Discussion

Mr Maunder says that on 30 June 2022 when Minister Verrall is quoted in the article saying the unvaccinated are over-represented in the rate of hospitalisations, that in fact this is not the case. He makes the point that when the article was published there is evidence indicating no overrepresentation at that time. RNZ does not dispute this.

RNZ is entitled to rely on the Minister’s opinion on this matter and the Council agrees that Ms Verrall is referring to hospitalisations over time. Ministry of Health information supplied by RNZ shows that there has been consistent disproportionate representation of the unvaccinated in hospitalisations since the beginning of the Omicron outbreak.

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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