TARAN BAKER AGAINST NEW ZEALAND HERALD
Case Number: 2935
Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2020
Verdict: Not Upheld
Publication: New Zealand Herald
Balance, Lack Of
Headlines and Captions
1. On 12 June at 2:19pm, the New Zealand Herald published an item on theirNZ Herald Facebook page headed “For some countries, the first – and hopefully only – wave of Covid-19 has peaked and passed. Not Sweden.” Situated below this was a picture of a peaceful park scene with people enjoying the outdoors. A further heading under nzherald.co.nz then stated, “Sweden’s shock stat: nation’s worst day as virus infections soar”. An article then follows that was published on theNew Zealand Herald website, with the headline “Covid 19 coronavirus: highest number of daily infections recorded in Sweden”.
2. In its first two paragraphs, the article sets out some figures relating to the waves of coronavirus occurring throughout the world. In the third paragraph it is stated:
“And in Sweden, where tactics to contain the pandemic have come under close scrutiny, a record 1474 new cases of coronavirus have been recorded, the nation’s highest daily tally of infections since the outbreak began.”
3. The article mentions Sweden’s total number of infections (48,300), and goes on to refer to the Public Health Agency’s statement that the spike is “simply due to a long-delayed surge in testing, and the number of deaths were slowing”. What follows is a quote to that effect from the Agency’s head of microbiology. here is then reference to growing criticism over testing in Sweden, and it is stated that deaths in Sweden caused by the disease have gradually declined from peak levels. Relevant figures are given. The Health Minister is quoted as saying that the number of people being treated in intensive care was decreasing at a slow and steady rate, and that the nation’s chief epidemiologist had acknowledged that the government could have done more to prevent the widespread Covid-19 outbreak, with the country eschewing lockdown in favour of mainly voluntary measures.
4. The online New Zealand Herald article goes on to provide further news about the virus around the world. It refers to deaths surging in Northern Italy, Brazil’s “chilling virus move”, and an “incredible” operation that saves a virus victim.
5. The complaint is laid under Principle 1 of the Media Council Principles, which requires accuracy, fairness and balance. It is also laid under Principle 6, which deals with headlines and captions. It is complained that the Facebook headline and caption were not accurate or balanced. A casual reader would be left with the impression that the situation in Sweden is out of control (“virus infections soar”), that Sweden had its “worst day” of the epidemic, and that Sweden is not yet past its peak of infections. It is ultimately claimed that none of these statements are backed up by the actual situation in Sweden, rendering the article inaccurate.
6. Particular reference in the complaint is made to an inaccurate statement that infers Sweden has not passed its peak of infections. It is acknowledged in the complaint that the last third of the article states that deaths and intensive care usage have declined from their earlier peak levels. Therefore, it is asserted that the earlier statement that infers Sweden has not passed its peak, is inaccurate.
7. The complaint asserts that the New Zealand Herald has made a deliberate attempt to mislead its readers through the use of an inaccurate and unbalanced headline and caption. Therefore, although based on both Principles 1 and 6, the complaint appears to be directed at the two first headlines which were in the Facebook article.
8. In its response, the New Zealand Herald states that the caption and headline referred to the number of coronavirus infections, as opposed to deaths. It was accurate to say that there were 1474 cases, as this was a record number of cases in a single day in Sweden. It was accurate to suggest that a wave of Covid-19 cases had not passed or, indeed, passed its peak, if the country was recording its single highest incidence of cases in a 24 hour period. It was also pointed out that since the article was written, the numbers of daily infections had increased further. Reference is made to otherHerald articles that present different more positive perspectives of the Swedish approach.
First caption – “For some countries, the first – and hopefully only – wave of Covid-19 has peaked and passed. Not Sweden.”
9. The Herald accurately reported that a record number of 1474 new cases of coronavirus had been recorded in Sweden on 12 June 2020. Given that Sweden had recorded the highest number of Covid-19 cases in its history on that day, it was correct to say that the spread of the virus had not peaked or passed in Sweden. Indeed, it had just peaked as stated. This was an accurate statement.
10. The first caption stated that the first wave had not peaked or passed. The fact that at the time of the article, deaths in Sweden may have been down 70% from a peak two months earlier does not make this headline wrong or illegitimate. When read with the second headline it is plain that the wave is of rising infections, not deaths.
11. There may have been explanations for this peak of 1474 cases. These explanations are set out in the article, where it is suggested that these record numbers were the result of increased testing. This was Sweden’s explanation provided in the article did not make the headline inaccurate. Indeed, as the New Zealand Herald records in its response, the daily number of Covid-19 cases continued to increase in Sweden thereafter. Plainly, it was correct to say that Covid-19 had not peaked and passed in Sweden on 12 June 2020. As such, the Herald did not deliberately mislead its readers.
12. We therefore find this heading to be accurate. It fairly reflects a key element of the article, being the record daily rise in Covid-19 cases. Any headline or caption needs to be read in conjunction with the article it summarises. Indeed, when read as a whole the article is balanced and fair, setting out as it does possible benign reasons for the increasing numbers, thus providing balance.
Second caption – “Sweden’s shock stat: nation’s worst day as far as infections soar”
13. For the reasons already given, this was plainly an accurate statement. Mr Baker asserts that increased cases were explicitly foreshadowed and expected by the Swedish authorities due to increased testing, and that the reporting of additional cases was not a “shock stat” or a reflection that virus infections were soaring. However, while it is always possible to explain statistics, and the explanations will vary, the plain fact of a record of daily infections warranted such a headline. This was Sweden’s worst day of recorded virus infections. While the phrases “shock stat” and “infections soar” are somewhat attention grabbing phrases, they cannot be said to have been inaccurate. It can be fairly said that it must be a shock to any country to record its highest day ever of infections, particularly after the virus had existed in the country for some months .Although there were explanations for this high statistic, the increasing number of infections was plainly unwelcome news.
14. Regarding the complaint that the headline and caption were not balanced – a headline and a caption must by their nature be brief. While they must be accurate there is no expectation of balance in a headline or caption.
15. It must also be recognised that there is an ongoing debate throughout the world’s media on the merits of the Swedish approach to the virus, in contrast to the lockdown approach practised in other countries, including New Zealand. In the mainstream media, articles continue to be published both in praise of, and in condemnation of, the Swedish approach to the virus. The correct response to Covid-19 is one of those long-running issues where it would be unreasonable for every side of the argument to be repeated on every occasion. Articles about the Swedish approach to the virus have to be examined in the context of the large number of positive and negative stories that deal with the approach of that country, rather than on a single report such as this. It is significant in assessing balance to note that the NZ Herald published other articles, including articles published on 9 and 10 May 2020, which gave a positive emphasis to the Swedish approach.
The complaint is not upheld.
Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.