The New Zealand Press Council has upheld a complaint from Valerie Smith of Auckland against the New Zealand Woman's Weekly.

The complaint related to an article headed "Smear Campaign" about cervical cancer and published in the magazine on 31 May. It was published in the wake of revelations that a pathologist had misread some cervical smears in Gisborne.

The article, presented in a question-and-answer format, asked at one point, How common is it? referring to the incidence of cervical cancer. The answer given by the author was, in part: "Before the national screening programme was set up in 1990, an average of 150 women died and 500 cases were diagnosed a year."

Mrs Smith tried to contact the editor of Woman's Weekly, Rowan Wakefield, to point out what she believed were errors in the figures. Eventually she spoke to the reporter, who cited as sources the Cancer Society and the Ministry of Health. Mrs Smith, in a carefully prepared complaint, then wrote to Ms Wakefield, repeating her belief that the figures were wrong, and citing Ministry data to back her stance.

Since the magazine continued to support its reporter ands the figures in the article and refused to print a correction, Mrs Smith approached the Press Council. She included annual Ministry statistics on the number of cervical cancer cases and deaths, and correspondence between herself and the Cancer Society as well as the Ministry staffer in charge of the screening programme.

The Council upheld the complaint. While it was apparent from Mrs Smith's correspondence that she had reservations about the efficacy of the cervical-cancer screening programme, the research she presented in her complaint nevertheless proved that the article was wrong in an important respect.

None of the sources relied on by Woman's Weekly showed that the statistics in the article were correct. In fact, the Ministry's own screening-programme policy booklet says: "Projections have been made that without an organised screening programme, up to 500 women may develop cervical cancer and 150 women die of it each year before the turn of the century."

The Press Council said that Woman's Weekly should have corrected the figures once what was a significant error - no matter whose fault it had been - was drawn to its attention.

Alternatively the magazine could have written a subsequent article on the screening programme, explaining the reservations some people had about its value, and canvassing their reasons.

The Council also found, however, that the article was on a matter of clear public interest and that the error, while material, did not affect the overall thrust of the message that Woman's Weekly was attempting to convey to its readers.


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