SIMON TEGG AGAINST TVNZ

Case Number: 3314

Council Meeting: OCTOBER 2022

Decision: No Grounds to Proceed

Publication: Stuff

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance

Ruling Categories: Misleading

Overview

On 2 April 2022 One News published a story on its website headlined Misinformation: Down the rabbit hole, and back.

It began by saying the misinformation that fuelled the Wellington occupation at Parliament was “alive and well in Kiwi communities”. Popular theories at the protest included anti-vaccination beliefs, claims the Prime Minister’s fiancé was in jail, and the belief that Covid was not real. It asked: “So how do Kiwis fall down the rabbit hole, and how do they get out?” The reporter had spoken to some “who’ve been there”, the story said.

The story included the experiences of four people. One was influenced by a friend who held conspiracy theories including that there were “lizard people”, and others held anti-vaccination and anti-fluoridation beliefs.

One of those featured, Alison, had a stepson who was prescribed puberty blockers. She said she searched online and became anxious about her stepson, reading material that suggested puberty blockers were dangerous, that medical campaigners who exposed the dangers were being silenced and the number of people de-transitioning was being hidden. The story noted that puberty blockers were legal in New Zealand and quoted the Mayo Clinic as saying they had benefits for children with gender dysphoria.

The four people quoted in the story were asked how they came to change their views. Alison said her online research led her to Breitbart, a far-right US news outlet that spread misinformation about climate change and other issues. She realised they were driven by a religious, conservative agenda, and appealed to people’s emotions. She also said she saw that her stepson’s life had improved once he started puberty blockers.

Simon Tegg complained that the framing of this story implied that concern about the efficacy, safety, and over-prescription of puberty blockers in New Zealand was the result of misinformation and marginalisation and was not a legitimate point of view.

The article reported the opinion of the US Mayo clinic which says puberty blockers are effective at reducing distress for gender-dysphoric children but did not report that a number of health authorities, including the national health bodies of UK, Sweden, France and Finland had a much more circumspect view of puberty blockers.

On the basis of that Alison’s former view, that puberty blockers are dangerous, was a reasonable lay interpretation of the current state of authoritative medical advice. In his view the article misinformed readers and therefore failed on the grounds of fairness and balance. 

TVNZ’s complaints committee said it did not agree that the article was inaccurate, unbalanced or unfair. The section about Alison was a small part of the article, which was designed to look at the different complexions “misinformation” could have, and the different ways it could affect people.

The article acknowledged there was controversy around puberty blockers but did not set out to examine the arguments for or against. Similarly, one of the anecdotes dealt with fluoridation, but the story did not examine the issue of fluoridation in detail. The purpose of the article was to examine how exposure to a single or narrow perspective could distort an individual’s understanding of a complex or nuanced issue.

The Committee said that the blogs Alison read appeared to paint an unrelentingly negative picture of puberty blockers, with no appreciation of the benefits they might offer. When Alison began considering different perspectives, she was able to see a positive change in her stepson that she had previously failed to recognise.

Misinformation refers not only to incorrect information but also the impact of bias, TVNZ said. There may have been credibility to some of the material she was reading, but it came from only one, aggressively targeted, perspective. She realised many of the arguments presented came from a “white, religious, conservative agenda”. This was Alison’s experience, irrespective of the arguments that may exist about puberty blockers, which the complainant clearly subscribed to. Alison benefited from a wider range of perspectives.

 Mr Tegg did not identify any material inaccuracies in the article, and there was no basis to suggest it sought to mislead, or was unbalanced or unfair.

 This complaint raised the same points considered by the Media Council in its recent ruling on a complaint about the same article made by Jan Rivers. The following repeats the points made in that decision.

The introduction to the story explained it was about misinformation and “going down the rabbit hole”. A range of different scenarios were presented, some clearly in the nature of a conspiracy theory and others, such as anti-vaccination beliefs, which could be said to go against the scientifically accepted view.

 The Council understands the complainant’s assertion that the puberty blockers issue was different to the issues raised by those who believe in a “lizard race” or that Covid-19 was not real. The story could have made it clearer that this case study was about being affected by very one-sided views that Alison believed were biased, rather than falling for an outlandish conspiracy theory. It was arguably unwise to include an issue where the science is uncertain alongside issues where it is not.

However, this was Alison’s story, presented as her experience. She believed that being exposed to a one-dimensional view through online sources did her a disservice, and that realizing there was another side to the debate had been beneficial. It was legitimate to report this as one person’s experience of navigating a fraught issue with information found online.

The Media Council agrees with TVNZ that an examination of the pros and cons of puberty blockers was outside the scope of the story and was not necessary. There was some acknowledgement that there was debate about puberty blockers, whereas in some of the other issues covered, for example the “lizard people” conspiracy theory, it was apparent that no reasonable person could hold the views under consideration.

The story about Alison was clearly presented as her experience and opinion. The Council can find no inaccuracy in the story, which did not have to cover the puberty blockers issue in detail, and there was some recognition of the controversy surrounding the use of the drugs.  There was no breach of Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.

For the same reasons as set out in the Rivers ruling, there are insufficient grounds to proceed.

 


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