TONY MITTON AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 3009

Council Meeting: MARCH 2021

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Misleading
Sensationalism

Overview

On January 21, 2021, Stuff published a backgrounder looking at the Covid-19 death rate. Tony Mitton complained under Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance and Principle 4: Comment and Fact, that a statement about how many New Zealanders might have died in New Zealand if Covid-19 took hold was scaremongering. The complaint is not upheld.

The Article

The lengthy story on Stuff headed Covid-19: How likely you are to die from the virus, according to the latest research, looked at why estimates of Covid-19 mortality had changed during the course of the pandemic and the difficulty of calculating the death rate. It explained the difference between the Case Fatality Rate (CFR, the proportion of deaths among confirmed cases) and the Infection Fatality Rate (IFR, the proportion of deaths among all cases). The story linked to a number of other articles and research reports that canvassed aspects of the subject.

The Complaint

Tony Mitton complained about one aspect of the report, which said: “Covid-19 is dangerous. For example, assume Covid-19’s true IFR is 0.6 per cent and apply that across New Zealand’s population. That’s nearly 30,000 people.” This was misleading, Mr Mitton said. It was disingenuous to assume that the IFR should be applied across the whole population. That would require everyone to get the virus, which was a most unlikely scenario. He said it was “simply scaremongering by Stuff”.

Mr Mitton suggested that Stuff should take a more positive approach. If the first 25 deaths, which were predominantly very vulnerable or elderly individuals or people with serious comorbidities, were ignored, since then there had been 2166 cases of Covid-19. An IFR of .6 per cent would suggest that 13 people should have died. “No one has. So the IFR is 0.0 per cent,” Mr Mitton said

The Response

Stuff replied that Mr Mitton’s complaint was unfounded. The IFR had routinely been applied to populations as a whole. The story provided a great deal of background about how mortality rates were calculated. Excluding all deaths before calculating the IFR, as suggested by Mr Mitton, was nonsensical, Stuff said.

To double-check their reporting, Stuff asked Professor Michael Plank of the University of Canterbury’s School of Mathematics and Statistics to review the passage in the story. He said: “This is a highly simplified and approximate calculation but nevertheless gives a reasonable expectation for what the death toll could be if we did not take any action to prevent the spread of the virus.”

Further Correspondence

In his final comment Mr Mitton reiterated that the figure of 30,000 was extreme and alarmist and did not take account of the real world. In the UK for example where mitigation had been far less stringent than in New Zealand, the population was 67 million. Using Stuff’s IFR of 0.6 per cent, four million people have or would die. To date the figure was 113,000. Stuff did not respond to this point, but the Media Council notes that this calculation is incorrect and the possible death rate would be around 400,000 not four million.

The Decision

The point complained about was in the context of a story that canvassed the complexity of the issue. The broad-brush calculation offered could be seen as a worst-case scenario, where no mitigation measures were taken. While Stuff could have made this clearer in the sentence by stating that the 30,000 figure could be reached if all New Zealanders became infected, this would have been obvious to most readers from the information provided in the story. Professor Plank’s view backs Stuff’s position that it was a reasonable statement to make in the context of the wider story, even if it was highly simplified.

The Council did not agree with Mr Mitton’s assertion that the first 25 deaths could just be ignored in order to calculate a more accurate IFR. The Council could find no inaccuracy and no breach of the principle requiring a clear distinction to be drawn between comment and fact.

The complaint is not upheld.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Rosemary Barraclough, Katrina Bennett, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Marie Shroff, Pravina Singh and Tim Watkin.

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