Case Number: 3440

Council Meeting: 25 SEPTEMBER 2023

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: Radio NZ

Principle: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance

Ruling Categories: Advocacy


  1. On 28 June 2023, Radio New Zealand (RNZ) published an online article headed Vaping may be step towards smoking for non-smokers, research suggests. After considering a complaint from the Vaping Industry Association of New Zealand (VIANZ), RNZ amended the article, including changing the headline to New research sheds light on vapers transitioning to smoking.
  2. VIANZ complained to the Council that even after the amendment, the article breached Principles (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance. The Council also considered the complaint under Principle (12) Corrections. The complaint is not upheld.

The Article

  1. The article reported on a study published by the University of Otago which analysed data on New Zealanders’ smoking and vaping status. The article quoted one of the researchers as saying they “found that there was an equal likelihood of vapers transitioning to smoking as smokers were to vaping”. The article also noted the researchers did not find sufficient information to say vaping was a gateway to smoking but there was evidence people were transitioning between them.
  2. The article then covered a trial to help New Zealanders quit vaping, quoting one of the researchers from that trial as saying the trial would “also assess whether interventions for quitting vaping have any unintended consequences on smoking rates.”

The Complaint

  1. VIANZ complained the headline and parts of the article did not accurately reflect the Otago University study. VIANZ said rather than finding vaping was a step towards smoking, the study found no consistent evidence that vaping increased the likelihood of later smoking behaviour. The association said while the article did quote one of the researchers as saying there was not enough information to say whether vaping was a gateway to smoking, this did not “cure” the inaccuracy of the headline and opening paragraph.
  2. VIANZ had asked RNZ to amend the headline and article and also to seek comment from Action for Smokefree (ASH) to provide balance. VIANZ said while RNZ had amended the headline and opening paragraph, the amendment was too slow and meant Newshub, when it republished the article, used the original heading and introduction.

The Response

  1. As set out above, after considering VIANZ’s initial complaint, RNZ amended the headline and opening paragraph of the article. In doing so, RNZ said the headline and opening paragraph were technically correct. However “to get over any implication that vaping causes smoking”, RNZ said it would change the headline to New research sheds light on vapers transitioning to smoking and amend the opening paragraph to say:
“New research has found that people are just as likely to transition from vaping to smoking as smoking to vaping.”
  1. In response to VIANZ’s complaint to the Media Council, RNZ focused on the delay in making the correction, explaining this was due to a technical hitch. RNZ said a senior editorial manager decided to amend the article at 5.07pm on June 28, and at 9.25am on the 29th, an internal communication confirmed the article had been updated and a correction note sent to partners. On 30 June, when RNZ learned the original article was still live, urgent steps were taken to make the changes. RNZ admitted that “the uncorrected article persisted on the RNZ website for longer than anyone was comfortable with.”
  2. RNZ explained the delay was caused by a miscommunication between its various technological platforms. RNZ apologised to those affected by this failure.

Final comments from VIANZ

  1. VIANZ said it continued to disagree with RNZ’s defence of the original opening paragraph as being “technically correct.” VIANZ said the article should not have been published without giving the opposition fair voice and doing so would have avoided the errors. Once the errors had been brought to RNZ’s attention, RNZ should have acted swiftly. VIANZ said the technology issues were “somewhat irrelevant” and RNZ should put in additional fail-safe measures around their “aging technology.”

The Discussion

  1. There are two issues for the Council to consider in this complaint. First, the Council must decide whether article (as originally published and as amended) breached Principle (1) Accuracy, Fairness and Balance. If the Council finds a breach, then it must consider whether the amendment complied with Principle (12) Corrections.
  2. Principle (1) Accuracy Fairness and Balance says in part:
“Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission. In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view.”
  1. The Council is satisfied the original headline and opening paragraph were inaccurate and therefore in breach of Principle (1).  In reporting on the study, the article includes some references to vapers transitioning to smoking, but also the clear statement from one of the researchers that “there was not enough information to say whether vaping was a gateway to smoking, but it showed that people were transitioning between them.”
  2. While the complainant felt the amended headline was still inaccurate, the Council finds the amended headline and opening paragraph together corrected the inaccuracy. The Council finds the amendments meant the article more accurately reflected the study as reported by RNZ.
  3. The article reported on a single piece of research, and the Council is satisfied there was no need to approach others, such as ASH, for comment. The article was reporting on a study and highlighting a piece of current research, rather than commenting on the benefits or risks of vaping more generally.
  4. Principle (12) Corrections says:
“A publication’s willingness to correct errors enhances its credibility and, often, defuses complaint. Significant errors should be promptly corrected with fair prominence. In some circumstances it will be appropriate to offer an apology and a right of reply to an affected person or persons.”
  1. On receiving the complaint from VIANZ, RNZ immediately reviewed the article and decided to make amendments, issuing instructions for the correction on 29 June. However, a technical issue meant publication of the revised article was delayed by a day, by which time other news outlets had picked up the original story. 
  2. The delay was unhelpful, but the Council believes that in the circumstances of this complaint, a correction within two days of publication of the original article meets the requirements of Principle (12) of a prompt correction.
  3. Decision: the complaint is not upheld.

    Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher (Chair), Scott Inglis, Jonathan MacKenzie, Tim Watkin, Hank Schouten, Judi Jones, Reina Vaai, Richard Pamatatau.

    *Council member Jo Cribb declared a conflict of interest and withdrew from the discussion.


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