JASON STRACHAN AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2916

Council Meeting: JUNE 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Unfair Coverage

Overview

[1] Jason Strachan has complained about an article headlined ‘Coronavirus: Misinformation found in a quarter of Covid-19 videos’, published by Stuff on May 25, 2020. It is an opinion piece about the scientific veracity of information about Covid-19 found in YouTube videos and was written by Dr Siouxsie Wiles. It can be found on their Science pages.

[2] Dr Wiles’ column draws on research by Canadian academics at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University in Ottawa, Heidi Oi-Yee Li, Adrian Bailey, David Huynh and James Chan. They looked at 69 YouTube videos and found 19 (27.5 percent) contained non-factual information. She argues that such videos are endangering lives and that YouTube and other “media giants” need to stop being complicit in this spread of inaccurate information.

The Complaint

[3] Jason Strachan has complained under Principle 1, Accuracy, Fairness and Balance and Principle 4, Comment and Fact.

[4] Mr Strachan argues the column is an attack on free speech and that it “presents no evidence to back any claims” and “is purely speculative”. The authors of the journal article are “self-claimed un-named researchers” reporting their “opinions” of “unnamed videos”

[5] He says Dr Wiles is pushing the narrative that the government and state-owned media are always correct. Further, the piece fits with the government’s aim of limiting sources for independent journalism. Such propaganda should be banned in New Zealand, he adds.

[6] Where Dr Wiles says videos like those in the study are endangering lives, he says no videos are identified or linked to and she is lumping all YouTube videos together.

[7] The complainant says Dr Wiles is arguing that any videos at odds with her “personal beliefs, opinion and agenda are dangerous”. He dismisses her qualifications as “only an associate professor” and concludes “this journalist needs to stop preying on the fear in the public’s mind”.

The Response

[8] For Stuff, Deputy Editor Janine Fenwick argues that free speech is integral to journalism but does not mean all views can be expressed at the cost of facts. She defends Dr Wiles’ column as a clearly labelled opinion piece based on fact, research and expertise.

[9] Ms Fenwick says that Stuff has published columns from all points of the political spectrum, both critical and supportive of the government’s Covid-19 policies. She points out they are not a state-owned company.

[10] The views expressed by Dr Wiles are her own and, “as one of New Zealand’s leading experts in infectious diseases”, are “entirely worthy” in the midst of a pandemic.

[11] As to the argument the column is speculative and lacks evidence, she says it is based on research published in the British Medical Journal-owned BMJ Global Health, which is externally peer-reviewed. The study was not commissioned. A link in the story allows readers to read the research themselves and decide its veracity.The journal purposefully doesn’t link to the videos studied, lest that amplify the misinformation it reported.

[12] Finally, Ms Fenwick argues, Dr Wiles is not criticising the videos for being at odds with her opinion, but rather for being at odds with scientific fact.

The Decision

[13] The bottom-line here is that the column is a perfectly standard – indeed vital – example of an expert commenting on research from her specialty field published in a credible journal.

[14] The complaint suffers from several factual errors. Contrary to the complainant’s claim, the evidence upon which the opinion piece is based is there for all to see. Also contrary to the complaint, the researchers and their qualifications are named in the research; they are neither unnamed nor self-claimed experts. Finally, the author is identified as a scientist, not a journalist.

[15] The complainant seems vexed that the videos weren’t named, but the research was peer reviewed, which should give a reader confidence in the fact the video selection was guided randomly by search engines and not to fit any pre-conceived agenda.

[16] An element of judgment is acknowledged by the study’s authors; they lay out the five points by which they scored each video (exclusively factual information on the transmission, typical symptoms, prevention strategies, potential treatments and epidemiology of COVID-19). It was a system they developed and which they described as “unvalidated but objective”. They explain how two of them independently viewed each video and any scoring dispute was moderated by a third. This system drew on previous studies and passed peer review.

[17] The Council’s remit is with the column, not the research, but the above is to show that we are entirely comfortable that the opinion piece is an accurate analysis of the research and that the research is more than “just numbers”, as Mr Strachan says.

[18] Dr Wiles makes no mention of government policy; indeed her core argument that scientific fact should be heeded ahead of content created for social media and that social media content should be read or viewed with a critical mind has been made by politicians from most, if not all, political parties in this country.

[19] The column is clearly labelled as opinion and expressed in the first person. Readers can be in no doubt that the views expressed are Dr Wiles’ and given her media prominence over recent years, many will recognise her as one of New Zealand’s leading experts in infectious diseases. Such expert commentary at this time is not only worthy, it is vital.

[20] As Ms Fenwick points out, Stuff is not state-owned and indeed competes with state-owned media. While the complainant alleges the column aligns with a government-led push to limit independent journalism, Stuff is in fact the largest news website in the country and therefore one of the largest providers of independent journalism in New Zealand.

[21] Finally, the complainant calls for this column to be banned. The Council believes that would be at odds with his arguments and our principles in favour of free speech and entirely inappropriate for what is a standard piece of expert commentary.

Decision

[22] The complaints under Principle 1, Accuracy, Fairness and Balance and Principle 4, Comment and Fact are not upheld.

Media Council members considering this complaint were Hon. Raynor Asher, Rosemary Barraclough, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Ben France-Hudson, Jonathan MacKenzie, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Pravina Singh, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.