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Last year, Wellingtonian Don McDonald, a stickler for accuracy and a statistics whiz, took a complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority over a basic factual error in a TVNZ news report about the discovery of a supernova.

It was a only a 37 second piece, but it had at least one factual error in the script, which went as follows…

(Presenter)

A 10 year old Canadian girl has won herself some star power, becoming the youngest person to discover a supernova.

Amateur astronomer Kathryn Aurora Gray, yes that is her middle name, won what experts are calling ‘The Astronomy Jackpot’ when she spotted the exploding star.

(Kathryn Gray)

A supernova is a star at the end of its life actually. It’s actually a star blowing up, ripping itself to pieces.

(Presenter)

Finding a supernova involves checking old images of star fields against new ones, and ruling out asteroids and known supernovas.

The Canadian Astronomical Society says Kathryn’s supernova was in a galaxy 240 light years from Earth.

The last sentence should read “240 million light years”.

TVNZ admitted the mistake – over the distance the supernova was from Earth, but claimed it wasn’t material to the item and declined to pursue Don’s complaint. Don went to the BSA, which threw out his complaint and to add insult to injury, charged the beneficiary a $50 fine.

Don, understandably, wasn’t happy so he appealed to the High Court. The resulting judgement overturns the decision to fine Don $50, but dismisses the other, more substantive part of the court case – Don’s appeal to have the BSA’s decision to throw out the complaint overturned.

You can read the judgement here: Mc donald v television nz

While it is nice that Justice Simon France recognised the inappropriateness of the fine, its disappointing that the court has, like the BSA, failed to grasp the concept that facts matter and getting the facts right is an important part of disseminating news and is material to the meaning people take from news items.

In his judgement, Judge France noted:

It seems reasonably clear that the Authority does not accept that all errors of a statistical nature, or arising in the field of science, meet the Accuracy Standard threshold of materiality. Mr McDonald may not agree with this viewpoint, but it is one the Authority is entitled to take. If Mr McDonald were to focus, when referring a matter to the Authority, not only on the error but on why he considers the error is material to the programme in which it has arisen, then all parties may be assisted.

Okay sure, maybe Don should have made it clear why he thinks it is a material matter, but doesn’t it seem a tad obvious? Of course it is material to the story and to the audience’s understanding of distances in space and the Earth’s place in the universe. Are people considered to be that stupid that accuracy doesn’t really matter – that a few mistakes here or there don’t really count as “material” in the big scheme of things?

I disagree. I can understand Don’s desire to let the facts speak for themselves and for TVNZ to recognise its errors and own up to them.

Judge France continues:

It is a formidable task to try and establish the Authority was plainly wrong in such an assessment, and I do not consider the appellant has overcome that hurdle. One can obviously point, as [McDonald's lawyer] Mr Edgeler did, to the inclusion in the story of associated facts such as the distance of the supernova from the Earth. But the addition of these matters does not change the essential characteristic of the story which is, as the Authority says, a short human interest piece on the remarkable achievement of a ten year old.

The problem of course being that a large and growing portion of the media’s output is made up of these types of human interest stories. Essentially the judgement is confirming the BSA’s view that its not about all things you learn (or are misled about) along the way – it is the overall impression you’re left with.

I supported Don at the time he was knocked back by the BSA. I continue to support his quest for the media to admit to its mistakes and correct them. The judgement is useful in that it emphasizes the need in a complaint to prove that a point is in fact material. this will help Don and others hone their arguments when they complain about the not insubstantial number of errors that litter broadcast news reports. But the bigger point should be taken by the broadcasters – that fixing up your mistakes quickly will avoid the sort of hassle that goes with having to defend your decisions in court. The BSA will hopefully learn a thing or two about when it is and isn’t appropriate to ask an unsuccessful complainant to get their cheque book out…

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