A recent ruling from the New Zealand Press Council warns against news media publishing press releases from biased groups without providing context or seeking comment from any other party. The ruling resulted from a complaint by Toi Te Ora Public Health Service against the coverage of the fluoridation issue by The Whakatane Beacon. For the full ruling see Source: TOI TE ORA PUBLIC HEALTH SERVICE AGAINST WHAKATANE BEACON.
Specifically, the ruling relates to two articles:
- “Dentist group dispels dire warning message” provided by Stan Litras, spokesman for Fluoride Information Network for Dentists (an anti-fluoridation group). It asserted the Bay of Plenty DHB claims that increased tooth decay would result from removal of fluoride were not supported by reliable metadata studies.
- “No Fluoride commonsense to campaigner” gave the views of Jon Burness, Fluoride Free Whakatane spokesman. He claimed reports that Ministry of Health figures show no justification for adding fluoride.
The Press council concludes:
“Importantly both published articles were effectively press releases from interest groups with a particular point of view. As the Council has had cause to comment in two recently upheld complaints (Cases 2478 and 2483) running a press release, without seeking comment from any other party, does not make for a balanced piece of journalism. There are significant dangers in simply regurgitating a Press Release and it does not accord with best journalistic practice unless it is clearly spelt out as a Press Release.”
Media should be wary of misrepresentation
Stan Litras’s press release criticised evidence used by Dr de Wit from the District Health Board and medical officer of Health. It misrepresented de Wet, yet the newspaper failed to put the criticisms and allegations to him. The Press council described this as “a simple failure of journalistic principles.” It added that it “is the obligation of the publication to allow an individual to comment if mentioned or quoted indirectly in an article.”
The Press Council made a similar observation with Jon Burgess’s press release, pointing out that the claims in the article were not put to the Ministry of Health (whose data Burgess was misrepresenting). The council put this specific complaint to one side as it did not have a direct complaint from the Ministry. It did comment, though, “that again this was not the best journalistic practice.”
Anti-fluoridation groups like Litras’s Fluoride Information Network of Dentists (an astroturf group for Fluoride Free New Zealand) are constantly providing press releases misrepresenting studies and experts. These manufactured press releases are circulated within the international anti-fluoride network and the tame websites and magazines run by the “natural”/alternative health industry. Occasionally they end up being published in more reputable mainstream media outlets where they can do more damage.
It would be nice to think the mainstream news media was sufficiently responsible to actually check out the claims being made by such obviously biased groups. It seems a simple principle to actually check with the experts or organisation whose data is being used in the press release (the Whakatane Beacon slipped up there). But it would also be nice to think that responsible news media attempts to provide balance when they are producing articles critical of scientific findings – even when provided by a maverick scientist into self-promotion. It surely doesn’t take much to work out which expert or institution should be asked for a balancing viewpoint.