A partial victory for reason

By Peter Griffin 30/04/2012 9


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…


9 Responses to “A partial victory for reason”

  • It is a lovely story and good on her for having astronomy as a hobby. I suspect that the said broadcaster had and still has no idea of how distant that galaxy was; it might as well have been “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”. This is the fine line between popularising science and dumbing it down. I agree with Don McDonald that we should be alert to these slipups because they are the start of a long, long slippery slope.

  • Frederik – I considered using that as the opening line in the submissions, but opted for the slightly more sedate “Approximately 240 million years ago”, which was still a fun thing to do in a legal document

    There was also one further mistake in the article: it wasn’t the Canadian Astronomical Society, but the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Both organisations exist.

  • I wish Don well in his crusade. Science is measurement-based, and accumulated errors always detract from the purity of the knowledge.

    More importantly, failing to correct known factual errors in popular media ( a mere factor of a million ) can confuse an interested reader/viewer who retains the knowledge, but doesn’t investigate the topic further.

    When a factual error in a science-based article in popular media is easily corrected, such as this one, it should be.

    It’s also a pity that Don’s proclivity to agitate for such corrections became part of the media story. His argument still has merit, regardless how many times he invokes it.

  • It makes me wonder what would have happened if TVNZ reported on a case of fraud involving $240 instead of a more accurate $240,000,000?

    Would the BSA have made the same findings over a complaint?

    Would a high court judgement have found the same?

    I suspect that there would have been completely different findings in both cases, despite the error being exactly the same.

  • This could be a good place to start to improve things eh what?
    Provided the actual political will is there to do it…

    I had a lovely conversation with a couple of my students yesterday. Both intend to be primary school teachers but they are both studying science (well, biology). I suspect I will be seeing a lot more of them as they progress through their studies. And I wish there were many more of them – all too few primary teachers have any substantial background in science & this is exacerbated by the lack of school science advisers to support them.

  • Reporting on science in NZ is embarrassing as far as the mainstream media are concerned. For example, the science section in the New Zealand Herald (online) is being neglected badly. TVNZ 7 is going off air. Reporting is often sloppy because of laziness; it doesn’t take much to check a few facts. Reporters are not interested, it seems, and most people care more about the political circus of the day than about science. I suppose the poor state of science education at schools is both a reflection and a cause of this.

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