TRINA STEVENS AGAINST WOMAN'S DAYINTRODUCTION
Trina Stevens complained that the headlines on the cover of an issue of Woman’s Day published on 7 November 2005 did not accurately or fairly convey the substance of the articles carried within the magazine itself. She further complained that Woman’s Day misled the public by not making a sufficient distinction between what was fact and what was conjecture.
This complaint was initially made to the Advertising Standards Complaints Board because the complainant believed it provided an example of misleading advertising. After carefully considering information received, the board declined to adjudicate because members believed they did not have jurisdiction. The board recommended the complaint be forwarded to the Press Council, which accepted jurisdiction.
A majority of the Press Council upheld the complaint, with a minority view being expressed in the dissent below.
Two large headlines on the front cover supplied the core of Ms Stevens’ complaint. The first was “POSH pregnant AGAIN!” (magazine’s capitals), superimposed over a photograph of Victoria Beckham, and the second was “JEN’S PREGNANT!” over a photograph of Jennifer Aniston. The latter was accompanied by a circle enclosing the words “SHOCK BABY NEWS”.
Ms Stevens’ complaint is that these cover statements seem to be incontrovertible statements of fact. There is no hint, nor suggestion, that these “pregnancies” were actually rumours or speculation. This only became evident when she purchased the magazine, then turned to and read the articles within. The complainant pointed out that a mere switch of question marks for the exclamation marks used on the cover might have more accurately conveyed the truth of the matter.
Similar comments were made by the complainant about other headlines within the magazine. For example, the contents page repeated the words “Posh pregnant again!” and adds “Jen’s baby shock” for those seeking direction to the apposite articles.
The article about Posh Beckham on page 8 made it clear that her “pregnancy” was speculation, not fact. Suddenly the headline became “Is Posh pregnant ?” and questions rather than statements of fact followed, with “is there new evidence?” and the repeated use of the word “may” linked with Mrs Beckham’s condition. The accuracy of the article itself on this matter is therefore not under question.
The headlines for the Jen Aniston article on page 15 maintained the tone of the cover teasers with “JEN’S JOY” and “I’m having a baby” superimposed over her photograph. However, the opening lines of the article -- in fact the opening word -- revealed the correct position . . . “Speculation is rising that Jennifer Aniston is pregnant. . .”
THE BASIS OF THE COMPLAINT
Ms Stevens’ complaint is that Woman’s Day breached three of the Press Council’s principles, namely:
(a) Principle 1 - publications . . . should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission
(b) Principle 6 - publications should, as far as possible, make proper distinctions between reporting of facts and conjecture, passing of opinions and comment;
(c) Principle 10 - headlines, subheadings, and captions should accurately and fairly convey the substance of the report they are designed to cover.
Taken as a whole, Ms Stevens’ submission was that the magazine deliberately misled and sensationalised for commercial gain.
The substance of the complaint is that, if the various statements on the cover are given their normal meaning and the headline on page 15 is given its normal meaning, both Victoria Beckham and Jennifer Aniston were pregnant. However, when the articles inside the magazine were read, it was clear that neither of these women had confirmed that she was pregnant, there was minimal evidence offered to confirm such a situation, and the magazine was merely speculating.
THE MAGAZINE’S RESPONSE
The Editor in Chief of Woman’s Day submitted that the complaint is fundamentally about free speech. She added that magazine staff should be able to choose punctuation unconstrained by a pedantic approach to punctuation, such as using question marks rather than exclamation marks in the headlines complained of. It was submitted that freedom of expression is neither served nor advanced by requiring women’s magazines to engage in a prolonged assessment over which forms of punctuation might best be employed for headlines or captions calling attention to sensational stories about celebrities who themselves court publicity.
In respect of the principles of the Press Council, the magazine’s position is:
(a) the magazine did not set out to deliberately mislead or misinform anyone (Principle 1);
(b) the articles associated with the headlines make proper distinctions between the reporting of facts and conjecture (Principle 6);
(c) overall, and in context, the headlines accurately and fairly conveyed the substance of the stories to which they relate (Principle 10).
In respect of Principle 10, the submission was that celebrity headlines on the cover of the magazine have long been designed to convey the thrust of the gossip inside. To do that, it is imperative that the headlines ensure readers are aware of:
(a) the celebrity concerned; and
(b) the angle or theme of the current speculation about that celebrity.
In this case, the magazine contended that it was simply telling its readers that Posh and Jen were in the “news” and that in both cases the issue was pregnancy.
Finally, it was submitted that to uphold the complaint would undermine not only freedom of expression but the “fun and gentle escapism” that consumers expect from magazines like Woman’s Day. It was suggested that to uphold the complaint would create “a chilling effect” - something for which New Zealanders would not thank the Press Council.
The NZ Press Council recognises the point made by Woman’s Day that it is a successful publication achieving high circulation figures and that its readers obviously enjoy the mix of gossip, rumour and speculation about the public and private lives of celebrities, along with features about food or fashion. The Press Council has no wish to deny its readership such enjoyment by taking an unduly narrow or heavy-handed approach, especially when the subjects of these stories are hardly “victims” of media speculation – the magazine itself notes that often such celebrities “actively court publicity”.
Further, a careful reading of the actual articles, one about Victoria Beckham and another about Jen Aniston, reveals no breach of Principle 6 – requiring proper distinctions between reporting of facts and conjecture, passing of opinions and comment – at least within these two reports. If anything, that there is little of factual substance and that the information is largely based on rumour is readily acknowledged, and even stressed by the use of such phrases as “speculation is rising”, “the couple are believed to have . . .”, “Posh was said to have been . . .” and “Posh was reported to have told a friend”.
While there is no breach of this particular principle within the actual articles, the disparity between the exaggerated headlines and captions on the cover and the carefully tentative tone found here, within the magazine’s pages, is obvious.
Principle 10 states that headlines and captions “should accurately and fairly convey the substance of the report they are designed to cover”. It is the majority’s view that the categorical headlines of the cover page (and further, of the contents page) do not “accurately and fairly” convey the substance of the articles themselves which are, as noted above, conjecture and speculation.
This breach of one of the Council’s principles is linked, almost inevitably, to a breach of Principle 1, which stresses that both newspapers and magazines “should be guided at all times by accuracy . . .and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers . . .”. It is misleading to invent headlines and present them as the truth when the articles to which they refer present only rumour, gossip and conjecture.
In addition, the majority of Press Council does not accept the argument by the editor of Woman’s Day that the substitution of question marks for exclamation marks on the magazine’s cover is merely a matter of grammar or punctuation. Such a simple change could have made those headlines less categorical. However, the Press Council does not want to rule on what punctuation a magazine might or should use on its cover. The issue is fundamentally a simple one: the magazine, as any publication, has a responsibility in its cover teasers and headlines not to mislead readers about the content found inside its pages. The magazine had various ways of drawing readers’ attention to the “issues” of possible pregnancies for Mrs Beckham and Ms Aniston, without stating emphatically that they were pregnant.
The Press Council upholds freedom of expression and accepts that a publication dealing with escapist stories about celebrity figures might be given somewhat more latitude. Further, it accepts that headline and caption writers must be given licence to be inventive in their choice of language. At the same time, it is the view of the majority of the Council that it would be altogether too much licence to allow publications to fabricate claims which are not confirmed by the copy.
The minority view
The minority would not uphold the complaint for the following reasons:
This magazine deals in gossip, which the New Zealand Oxford Dictionary defines as “A) easy or unconstrained talk or writing esp. about persons or social incidents. B) idle talk; groundless rumour.” The very essence of gossip is that it may not be true, and it will be often misleading. Readers of the magazine should know that.
The front-page teasers stretch the limits. But that is their very intention - to tease the reader into buying the magazine. In this case, the teasers are presented in a dramatic style that can bear the weight of the stories they highlight only if allowed extreme licence – the sort of licence only a magazine that deals with gossip would allow. Even so, is it fair to judge the cover headings on their own? In the entire package, the “facts” emerge, as the complainant agrees.
The Press Council’s Statement of Principles on the accuracy of headings and what they were meant to convey strikes difficulties with magazines that deal in gossip, magazines that now have much greater currency in the market place. People read them, it must be assumed, to be tantalised, to keep up with the latest gossip.
In such circumstances, to uphold the complaint – the Press Council’s sternest sanction - is to judge the magazine articles and cover teasers on a credibility they neither deserve nor seek. Woman’s Day has pushed the boundaries with the articles complained of, but that is its business, and, given its large circulation, what its readers expect of this genre. If Woman’s Day is misleading its readers, they are accepting of the risk of being misled.
In saying this, the minority acknowledges this will be of no comfort to Ms Stevens. However, the minority of the Press Council is not prepared to apply an acid test of accuracy when the magazine’s intent is a diet of gossip and escapism and, in the minority’s view, not necessarily the facts. Indeed, it is impossible to do so.
In the end, Ms Stevens and any other readers unhappy at the way such magazines publish headlines and articles have the remedy in their own hands – don’t buy the magazine.
The Press Council, by a majority, upholds the complaint, in part. Principles 1 and 10 have been breached.
Press Council members upholding the complaint were: Barry Paterson, John Gardner Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Denis McLean, Alan Samson and Terry Snow
Press Council members not upholding the complaint were: Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, Clive Lind and Lynn Scott.