JASON WANG AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2917

Council Meeting: JUNE 2020

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Stuff

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

Overview

[1] Jason Wang complains about an article published by Stuff on 10 April 2020:“New Zealanders ‘caught short after masks sent to China’”.The issues Mr Wang has raised fall to be decided under Media Council Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; Principle 4: Comment and Fact; Principle 6 Headlines and Captions; and, Principle 7: Discrimination and Diversity. The complaint is upheld on Principle 1, but not on Principles 4, 6 and 7.

The Article

[2] “New Zealanders ‘caught short after masks sent to China’” appeared in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and during the time when New Zealand was at Alert Level 4.

[3] The article begins by noting a claim that New Zealanders have been left short of masks and protective gear and that, despite Government assurances that there was sufficient stock, there had been reports of shortages. After noting various claims by health professionals about the amount and quality of existing stock the article quotes a prominent academic with expertise on China to the effect that the shortage had been exacerbated by large amounts of masks and other equipment being sent from New Zealand to China by Chinese organisations based in New Zealand. The quote continued with the claim that sending this material to China was an organised effort by Chinese Communist Party Government proxy groups, profiteers and well-meaning individuals aiming to support family and friends in China.

[4] Immediately after these statements the article notes that in early March 2020 Eden Ventures (with which the complainant Mr Wang is associated) sent a consignment of protective equipment (gowns, gloves and goggles) to China. This followed an earlier consignment of masks made by one of the investors in Eden Ventures and a January 2020 consignment of medical gowns sent by the same person to a hospital in Wuhan, China. The article then quotes Mr Wang who noted that the consignments had occurred when the issue (i.e. the coronavirus) was largely in China and medical staff there were struggling. He observed that the logic for sending the material to China was that “… if the virus is a fight for all humanity – and if we supported China to combat, we wouldn’t face it ourselves in New Zealand …”.

[5] The rest of the article cites the Ministry of Health insisting that there was no shortage of masks, the ACT leader David Seymour calling on the Government to “come clean” on protective gear and criticising the job being done by the Ministry of Health and the District Health Boards, and concluded with observations regarding the ability to manufacture protective equipment in New Zealand.

The Complaint

[6] Mr Wang’s complaint developed over the course of his correspondence with Stuff and is not framed with reference to the Media Council principles. Overall, his primary complaint is that he believes the article is xenophobic. He also considers that it is unbalanced, biased and not grounded in facts.

[7] In particular, he considers that the headline of the article separates Chinese New Zealanders from the rest of New Zealand. He considers that the headline (“New Zealanders ‘caught short after masks sent to China’”)followed by the opening statement of the article “New Zealanders have been left short of masks and protective gear because shipments of the products were sent to China, it has been claimed”, immediately frames the reader’s perspective that people, other than New Zealanders, are sending the equipment to China when New Zealand stock is low. He considers that this incites fear of ‘the other’ buying up New Zealand stock and is xenophobic. He also notes that nomasks were sent to China by Eden Ventures (or those associated with it) from New Zealand, which raises further problems with the headline (which focuses on masks). He also considers that the article appears arbitrary as the headline leads people to believe that there is a shortage of protective equipment, even though the article reports the Government’s claim that there is no shortage.

[8] He also claims that the author ignored the fact that Eden Ventures sent the equipment to China in January and early February, not March as claimed in the article, though this was made clear in his communication with the author. He also notes that other parts of his communication with the author were ignored (such as the fact that Eden Ventures bought some equipment back from China to donate to people in New Zealand).

[9] Moreover, he believes that the flow of the article, and the fact that the reference to Eden Ventures occurs immediately after the quote regarding equipment being sent by Chinese Communist Party proxies, suggests that Eden Ventures is one of these proxy groups. He acknowledges that the academic’s comments were her own, but complains that there was no fact-checking about whether these proxy groups in fact exist, or whether or not Eden Ventures was one.

[10] Overall, his view is that the primary purpose of the article was to perpetuate xenophobia towards Chinese people and this is supported by social media messages he has received from members of the public.

The Response

[11] In response the Editor in Chief, Verticals for Stuff notes that the principal angle of the story was the view of the academic quoted in the article. He notes that the academic is an internationally recognised and respected expert on Chinese politics and a frequent media source on Chinese influence internationally. Stuff considers the academic’s credibility as an informed source to be well established, even if her comments can be controversial, and that the point she was making was an important one of public interest.

[12] The editor disputes Mr Wang’s assertion that the article is xenophobic. Rather, the article traverses a running story about whether New Zealand had sufficient protective equipment for dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. The suggestion “… that Stuff “created” the story to “perpetuate xenophobia” is utterly untrue, unfounded, a misreading or misrepresentation of the article, and abhorrent to our values as a news organisation.” Mr Wang’s correspondence with the author, and his statements that the exporting of protective equipment was driven by humane reasons, was reported in straight forward way.

[13] With regard to the structure of the article, the editor notes that the nature of news writing necessitates a straightforward recitation of the facts and the flow and links between paragraphs are not always graceful. However, he does not accept the connection Mr Wang draws. The academic made the point which was reported, the article then goes on to quote others involved in the issue. Indeed, Mr Wang’s logic could equally suggest that his business was among the “well-meaning individuals” referred to by the academic.

[14] The editor notes that the author did try to track down some of the ‘proxy groups’ referred to by the academic, but was unable to do so. The editor considers that this simply suggests it is highly unlikely any such groups would be prepared to ‘out’ themselves to a journalist. However, the editor considers that this argument detracts from the wider import of the academic’s argument, which is that the export of protective equipment from New Zealand at the height of the pandemic was as a result of a campaign by the Chinese government.

[15] The editor’s response also makes some specific observations regarding the application of Media Council principles, which are addressed below.

The Decision

[16] In order to address Mr Wang’s complaint it is necessary to frame it by reference to the relevant Media Council principles, the content of which guide us in determining if there has been any breach. The Media Council considers that four are relevant: Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; Principle 4: Comment and Fact; Principle 6 Headlines and Captions; and, Principle 7: Discrimination and Diversity. Although we do not uphold the complaint under Principles 4, 6 and 7 the Council has a number of concerns about this article which we discuss under Principle 1, which, for reasons that will become clear, is considered towards the end of the decision.

Principle 4 – Comment and Fact

[17] Principle 4 – Comment and Fact states:

A clear distinction should be drawn between factual information and comment or opinion. An article that is essentially comment or opinion should be clearly presented as such. Material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate.

The article clearly delineates its sources and their views. In this context, it is the views attributed to the academic which are most controversial. However, these are clearly marked by quotation marks as the academic’s opinion. The Media Council accepts that the academic is recognised as an expert on China. Her claims are presented as her opinion, not as proof of their validity.We note the editor’s statement that the reporter attempted to identify some of the proxies referred to by the academic. Failing to do so, best practice would have been to seek actual examples from the academic and, if none were forthcoming, consider the solidity of the story. At very least the report could have made clear if there was no evidence that Eden Ventures was such a proxy.Nevertheless, we have decided that the failure to meet a best practice standard does not cross the uphold threshold.

Principle 4: Comment and Fact: not upheld

Principle 6 – Headlines and Captions

[18] Mr Wang’s main complaint is that the article was xenophobic. Mr Wang objects to the tenor of the article as whole, but in particular to the headline and the placement of the reference to Eden Ventures activities immediately after the quote regarding Chinese Communist Party proxies. We consider that this engages three further Media Council principles. The first is Media Council Principle 6 – Headlines and Captions, which states:

Headlines, sub-headings, and captions should accurately and fairly convey the substance or a key element of the report they are designed to cover.

[19] Mr Wang suggests that the headline (“New Zealanders ‘caught short after masks sent to China’”)and initial text of the article suggests that people other than New Zealanders were sending masks to China, in turn, inciting fear of the ‘other’. The editor for Stuff suggests that the headline is a fair and accurate representation of the main angle of the story and that the quote marks are, in line with established practice, signalling that they represent a quote from someone in the article, even if not verbatim.

[20] The Media Council considers that interpretation of the headline is likely to be a subjective matter for each individual reader. On a plain reading it appears to suggest that New Zealanders may miss out on protective masks as a result of a number of them being sent to China; the headline is silent as to who has done the sending (as are the opening words). Conversely, as the social media references made by Mr Wang suggest, it is possible to read the headline (and article generally) as suggesting that people other than New Zealanders are responsible for the situation.

[21] By a narrow margin the Media Council is satisfied that the headline does not breach Principle 6 and is not xenophobic, primarily because the headline does convey a key point of the article, the claim that there was a shortage of masks. Nonetheless, it would have been preferable for the word ‘claimed’ to have been used as part of the headline. This may have avoided the problem, as it would have made it clear this was a statement of opinion, not a statement of fact.Moreover, as we develop below, singling out Eden Ventures (which did not actually send any masks from New Zealand to China) was not appropriate. This makes the headline used problematic.However, we consider that those points are better addressed below in relation to Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.

Principle 6: Headlines and Captions: not upheld

Principle 7 – Discrimination and Diversity

[22] More broadly, Mr Wang suggests that evidence that the article is xenophobic can be seen in the flow of the article and the reference to Eden Ventures consignments to China occurring immediately after the quote regarding Chinese Communist Party proxies (and well-meaning individuals) being responsible for the shortage. The Media Council considers that this complaint engages Principle 7 – Discrimination and Diversity, which states:

Issues of gender, religion, minority groups, sexual orientation, age, race, colour or physical or mental disability are legitimate subjects for discussion where they are relevant and in the public interest, and publications may report and express opinions in these areas. Publications should not, however, place gratuitous emphasis on any such category in their reporting.

[23] Principle 7 recognises that minority groups (such as the New Zealand Chinese community) and race are legitimate subjects for discussion, but cautions that ‘gratuitous emphasis’ must not be placed on these types of categories. The editor for Stuff notes that the article was not about race, rather it was about another country’s foreign policy activities in relation to an important matter of public interest and, in any event, the coverage did not offend Principle 7.

[24] The Media Council notes the editor’s comment that sometimes the style of writing necessary for news reporting can be ‘ungraceful’. This is certainly a good example.Greater care should have been taken here, which may have avoided the issue entirely. That said, the Media Council considers that while the majority of readers will have formed the view that Eden Ventures was a proxy for the Chinese Communist Party the article did not place ‘gratuitous emphasis’ on either a minority group or race. It merely recorded that Eden Ventures had sent protective equipment to China. Immediately after this Mr Wang is quoted as stating that the purpose of sending the equipment to China was humanitarian and driven by a desire to help New Zealand avoid the ravages of Covid-19

[25] It follows that even if any xenophobic views had been formed against Eden Ventures, they were capable of being dispelled by this point. There is no suggestion in the article that Mr Wang was anything other than genuine.

[26] The Council concludes that there has been no breach of Principle 7. However, while there may have been no technical breach of Principle 7 the Media Council does consider that these points are also relevant to the question of whether the article was accurate, fair and balanced.

Principle 7: Discrimination and Diversity: not upheld

Principle 1 – Accuracy, Fairness and Balance

[27] Media Council Principle 1 – Accuracy, Fairness and Balancestates that:

Publications should be bound at all times by accuracy, fairness and balance, and should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers by commission or omission. In articles of controversy or disagreement, a fair voice must be given to the opposition view.

The Media Council has a number of concerns about the reporting in this article. Considered overall, the structure of the article and its timing (shortly after New Zealand entered the Covid-19 Level 4 ‘lock down’), coupled with the number and extent of the inaccuracies and statements which are misleading contained within it, have done a great disservice to Eden Ventures, and by extension Mr Wang.

Discussion

[28] There is one clear inaccuracy.It is reported that Eden Ventures sent consignments of protective equipment in March.It did not.They were sent in January/February, and the reporter was told this. This statement was therefore both inaccurate and unfair. By reporting the export as occurring in March (by which time New Zealand was becoming fast aware of the existential threat posed by Covid-19) the clear suggestion was that the export of protective equipment was being done for the benefit of people in China and at the expense of people in New Zealand. Accurately reporting that Eden Ventures had sent protective equipment to China in January and February would have led to a very different connotation and would have supported Mr Wang’s quoted statement that the export was driven by humanitarian considerations. To report this export as occurring in March was an inexcusable error, warranting an uphold for inaccuracy.

[29] The first breach of the requirement in Principle 1 for fairness and balance is that Eden Ventures did not send any masks to China from New Zealand; it sent other pieces of protective equipment. While this is made clear in the article itself, it rather begs the question of why Eden Ventures was singled out for use as an example for an article the headline for which (and much of the rest of the content) focuses on masks.

[30] Moreover, there was no mention that between the time of the last Eden Ventures shipment to China and the date of the article the flow of protective equipment had reversed. The reporter was informed of this by Mr Wang, who noted that Eden Ventures had, by 6 April 2020, purchased a large number of masks from China for donation to essential workers in New Zealand. The omission of this material was unfair. Further, the day before the article appeared, a different news organisation reported that New Zealand was awaiting 500 tonnes of protective equipment from China.

[31] The second breach of Principle 1 in relation to unfairness and balance arises from the implication that Eden Ventures (and by extension Mr Wang) are proxies for the Chinese Communist Party.Directly after referring to the CCP being behind the exports, there is a reference to Eden Ventures as an exporter.Although the actual items sent by Eden Ventures are listed in the article, the reference to that company directly after a paragraph about the wrongful exportation of masks would lead the reader to assume the Eden was one of those exporters. It is likely to be only the very careful reader who will dwell on the list what was actually sent, and realise that in fact Eden had not exported masks at all.

[32] In our view, the inference that Eden Ventures was a proxy for the Chinese Communist Party was a reasonable one to draw and it was wrong and unfair to Eden Ventures.

Summary

[33] First, in breach of Principle 1, the article is inaccurate. There is a serious error about the timing of Eden Venture’s exports. The article says that the materials were sent to China in “early March” (when Covid-19 was in New Zealand), rather than stating the true position, which was that the exports were in January and February, when Covid-19 was not in New Zealand but was raging in parts of China.Moreover, it appears this was known to the reporter, and even when evidence of this was provided by Mr Wang in his complaint there was no correction.

[34] Second, in relation to fairness and balance, the heading to the article and reporting within it creates a false implication by suggesting that Eden Venture’s exports were of face masks, when they were not. Although the actual items sent by Eden Ventures are listed in the article, the reference to that company directly after a paragraph about the wrongful exportation of masks would lead the reader to assume the Eden was one of those exporters.Further, there is the wrongful implication that Eden Ventures was a proxy for the Chinese Communist Party.

Principle 1: Accuracy, Fairness and Balance: upheld

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

Craig Cooper took no part in the consideration of this complaint.