VARIETY - THE CHILDREN'S CHARITY AGAINST READER'S DIGESTVariety - The Children's Charity run by Variety Club of New Zealand complained about an article in the June 2004 edition of the Reader's Digest which was headed "New Zealand's Most Trusted". The article had a stand-first which said "Which charities do New Zealanders trust most? Which brands? The results of our exclusive poll will surprise you." There was a small box as a strap line on top of the first page which said "RD Poll". The initials "RD" are run on the top of alternate pages as an abbreviation for Reader's Digest.
The complaint is not upheld.
Quoting a mixture of academics and random New Zealand consumers, the article explored the degree to which New Zealanders trusted various charities, product brands, occupations and government services. Asking how big a factor trust was in New Zealanders' decisions to support the names listed, the article said: "To find out, we surveyed more than 600 Reader's Digest customers. (The results were later weighted to represent the general population). We asked respondents how important trust is to them as consumers, and invited them to rate several charities, brands, government services and occupations. Our lists were by no means exhaustive; we chose subjects that would be well known to most New Zealanders, and reflected a fair cross-section of today's marketplace."
The magazine flagged the story on its cover as "The Reader's Digest Trust Poll: Winners & Losers". Several publications took up the results and ran them as stories or generated comments of their own on the findings.
A full list of the names chosen by the magazine and their ranks in different categories was run at the end of the article. Small graphics reproduced as illustrations through the article showed the top five and bottom five in each category as chosen by the poll. These were labelled Most Trusted and Least Trusted.
In the summary graphic headed Charities, the five Most Trusted were Ambulance services, Royal NZ Plunket Society, SPCA, Cancer Society and Royal NZ Foundation for the Blind. The Least Trusted in this category were listed as Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Variety Club, World Vision and Save the Children.
Local identification and longevity were two characteristics which academics believed contributed to the high ranking of the charities which came out at the top of the poll.
In its letters of complaint to the editor of Reader's Digest and to the Press Council, Variety - The Children's Charity criticised the methodology of the poll and said it was irresponsible journalism that it was unfairly portrayed as one of New Zealand's least trusted charities. "The most unfortunate thing about the article is the damaging effect it can have on an organisation whose very purpose is to demonstrate humanitarian concern which is founded implicitly on trust, good character and transparency.
"We are proud of the integrity and history of our organisation both in New Zealand and throughout the world. Variety runs a transparent financial system and grants system which would be equal to that of any not-for-profit organisation.
"We take great care of our brand and are extremely proud of the work that we do here in New Zealand. We have conducted our own qualitative brand audits and the 'trustworthiness' of our organisation has never been called into question.
"Whilst we do not expect the public to understand the detail of the work done by an umbrella charity such as Variety, neither do we expect organisations like Reader's Digest to present information that is unfair and does not communicate how their outcomes have been achieved. A reputation takes years to build and only seconds to destroy."
Editor-in-chief Tom Moore defended the story, saying the way the poll was taken was revealed in the story, and that the magazine did not make any pretence that their survey was more than they said it was. He wanted to include charities in their survey "because they compete for public trust as much as commercial brands and public services."
He pointed out that while Variety complained about being among "the least trusted" of all charities in New Zealand, all the magazine reported in its story was that the charities at the bottom of those surveyed were the least-trusted among the "well-known" charities they asked respondents to rank. Stating results as winners and losers was common journalistic practice.
The editor-in-chief felt readers would not regard Reader's Digest as a "sensationalist" publication wanting to do a "sensationalist" story, as charged by Variety. He had offered Variety the chance to put their views in a letter for publication in the next edition and on the magazine's website, as an unhappy Greenpeace had done for the Australian edition, but Variety had declined.
Polls and lists generated by magazines are a staple of magazine journalism because of their proven reader appeal, whether they be lists of best-dressed, worst-dressed, richest, most powerful, most trusted, or man or woman of the year, decade or century. Magazines tend to control the whole process editorially themselves to retain the exclusivity and recognisable style of the publication. The categories of "most" and "least" are generally treated by readers to be comparative within the survey structure set up, and not absolutes.
The Reader's Digest has followed this process in the story in question. It was clear in the story how they conducted the poll ("To find out, we surveyed more than 600…") which was more popular than statistically scientific. It was also clearly stated that consumers were invited to rate "several charities…" not a complete list, that the "lists were by no means exhaustive" and that "we chose subjects", making it evident the editorial staff controlled the selective lists.
Variety complains, to a degree, that the Reader's Digest story does not serve its purposes, but journalism directed towards the public will not often match the controlled purposes of organisations featured in such stories. Variety was offered the chance by the magazine to reach a wide audience with its point of view through an explanatory letter that presumably would have challenged the premises on which the poll was based. It was a pity that the organisation did not take up this reasonable offer of redress following a fairly normal journalistic exercise.
The complaint is not upheld.