Press Council rules on knowing readers minds?

By Grant Jacobs 14/04/2015 12


Today the New Zealand Press Council released it’s rulings on complaints filed by Mark Hanna and the Science Media Centre about an article on homeopathy in the Wairarapa Times-Age. Mark and Peter have already covered the back story and how these rulings would seem to ‘allow’ newspapers to write inaccurate or unbalance coverage on the basis that some other publication will cover that.

I have a lot of thoughts on these rulings, but I’d like to pick on just one.

My first thought was that these rulings seem to want to rule not on the basis of what the publication published, as I would expect, but on the basis of what they believe readers think or are aware of.

I’ve covered ‘controversial’ issues related to science for some time now. One key lesson I’ve learnt is never to presume what others think or know. It’s never a good idea, for a whole raft of reasons.

(Similarly, journalists should not presume to know what readers know, either. Wouldn’t this be at the heart of giving balance?)

The Press Council’s responses—to my reading—also seem to imply that because readers might be able to obtain contrary views, they will have – and hence this will be what they aware of.

Aside from logical issues, good service is when a business delivers, not when it expects clients to make up their shortfall.

From their decision in response to Mark Hanna’s complaint:

Its readers, meeting an uncritical story on the supposed popularity of homeopathy and natural remedies, are likely to be aware the efficacy of these treatments is strongly contested by medical science.

and

It goes without saying that the medical science does not support them.

From their decision in response the Science Media Centre complaint:

Its readers, meeting an uncritical story on the supposed popularity of homeopathy and natural remedies, are likely to be aware the efficacy of these treatments is strongly contested by medical science.

(They also repeat the first I’ve quoted from their decision in response to Mark Hanna’s complaint.*)

In contrast on the publication itself:

[regards the ‘medical disclaimer’ in the final sentence of the article:] Its inclusion suggests the newspaper was aware of the story’s deficiency.

This and other statements in the decisions can be read as accepting the story has deficiencies—what I’d have thought they’d rule on—then choosing to rule on the basis of what they think readers are aware of (or think).

Surely it doesn’t matter what they think readers will think, or what they think readers are aware of or not? I wouldn’t have thought that is their remit. Surely their remit is to assess what the publication published. Not some other publisher either, that publisher.

Post-ramble – a few further thoughts on what people think, or don’t

It’s straight-forward that some readers do believe in homeopathy. (This doesn’t make them right, just that they believe in it.) The article they are ruling on itself, and the editor’s defense, make that clear. Businesses sell homeopathic remedies because they can make money from it – someone must be buying. Homeopaths offer their wares and according to their talk they have clients. Heck there’s even a homeopathy ‘school’ that the NZQA has excruciatingly ratified – but excruciating or not it’s there and they have students.

Then there are people who’ve never taken much interest.

One thing familiar to those of us who deal with these things directly is that there are invariably people who have either not encountered the thing before, haven’t paid it much attention before, and/or who just don’t really know either way. They rarely speak up, but they’re there – and in my experience in good numbers. In saying that ‘most people will know’, ‘most people will be aware of’, is the Press Council is failing to speak for them?

Footnotes

* The two decisions look to be edited copies from the same draft, personalised to each of the two complainants – I’ve not presented quotes found in both.


Other articles on Code for life:

Calls to remove homeopathic remedies from pharmacies

Supporting homeopathy for Ebola loses natural health brief but more needed

Homeopathy check-up: Not in the health system, disclaimers on labels

Food and genetic modification: better informed policy and legislation wanted

Science journalism–critical analysis, not debate


12 Responses to “Press Council rules on knowing readers minds?”

  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this Grant, I think you make good points here.

    On their assertion that readers are likely to be aware that these treatments aren’t backed up by science, I’m particularly frustrated that they said this even though I cited research in my complaint that found the opposite.

    Although the survey was conducted in 2009, and changes will surely have happened in the intervening 6 years, it nevertheless found that only 6% of survey respondents disagreed with the statement “there is good scientific evidence that homeopathy works.”

    See page 94 of this PDF for details: http://www.nzma.org.nz/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/17794/Vol-122-No-1295-22-May-2009.pdf

  • It’s bizarre to me that they assume people have sought out credible contrary information. That’s not been my experience of the alt-med gang and other allied issues.

    Their information silos are so comforting and reassuring, and use techniques to undermine and discredit mainstream sources, that it’s especially important to try to break into them whenever there’s an opportunity. And this seems to certainly have been one of those missed opportunities.

    I’m trying to imagine some other issue getting this same treatment. Climate? Vaccines? Ugh.

    But–the point really is the folks who don’t know the topic at all, you are right. It’s unfair to them to assume they’ve read widely on this.

  • Interesting to see the outcome of that survey. That’s a lot lower figure than I‘d like.

    (I was going to add something to the effect of ‘how do they know?’, ‘what is their evidence?’, but decided to keep it short.)

  • @Mary: One of my worries about this decision is that it could clear the path for similar unbalanced articles on topics like those you mention to be published without worrying about them being challenged. It really feels like the Press Council is unlikely to be of any help here, which I think leaves us only with the hope that journalists and editors will all consistently act ethically and responsibly.

    I’d hope that good reporters would always write for their least informed reader, instead of assuming everyone already understands the other side of the issue (unless, perhaps, they’ve written about that as well), but as the Times-Age article showed that doesn’t always happen. It doesn’t make me feel optimistic 🙁

    @Grant: As I mentioned in my post on this I’d like to think that the numbers might have improved in light of the reporting on the Steffan Browning homeopathy story last year and the reporting on the NHMRC statement on homeopathy last month, but I don’t think that will have made a big enough dent for *most* people to understand that homeopathy is not supported by evidence.

  • Hi Mary –

    The person mainly criticised wasn’t the journalist, but the editor.

    The complaints noted that the journalist admitted at the time that she was trying to get balance, i.e. was trying to do the right thing, but the editor went ahead with it anyway – he could have simply delayed for a day (not really a topic that needed to be out a particular day), or possibly noted that a follow-on piece would cover that. Both of these suggestions were made in earlier discussion at the time the article came out – the former one is part of Peter’s complaint if I recall correctly.

  • Could submitting an article to the paper on the topic be an option? Crowd source the writing and submit to the editor under a nom-de-plume indicating it is a group written article.

    From what I’ve seen papers will publish almost anything and are just wanting to fill space. If we can collectively fill that space with factually accurate content (very cheaply (or for free)) then they may not feel the need to fill them with fluff pieces like this.

  • I’m certain that wouldn’t work in this case. In his response to the complaint, the editor of the Times-Age seemed very opposed to that idea. Here is a quote from his direct response to my complaint on that matter:

    “Mr Hanna’s suggested remedies, of amending the article, publishing a prominent correction, or publishing a follow­up article linking the first, discussing the lack of evidence and plausibility of the treatments, are equally insulting to the theme of the story, particularly to Mrs Carter, who was genuine in her belief the remedies assisted her father in his final days. There is no inaccuracy to correct. Mr Hanna’s “facts” are opinion. The “implausibility” of homeopathy is his opinion. The Times-­Age is under no obligation to write any story on a theme directed by an outside body.”

  • Gold – I suggested something similar at the time. As Mark was saying, the editor ‘suggested’ that he ‘should’ ‘not upset’ those he’s written about. (Three sets of inverted commas in one sentence looks terrible, but you get my point right?)

    That makes me cringe a little – you might wish editors be more robust, but having said that I recall reading a piece by Terry Pratchett on the subject of writing in smaller papers, like he once did. He points out that in local rags the journalist isn’t hidden behind a front desk and that complaints don’t so much appear in a letter to editor, but in front of them in their office. Tongue-in-cheek: perhaps the WT-A editor feels nervous about the local equivalent?!

    More generally –

    The Kiwi Journalists Association Facebook page has a few comments on the Press Council response:
    https://www.facebook.com/groups/216332661716385/permalink/1094880237194952/

    Nothing on the Wairarapa Times-Age Facebook page (yet).