Dateline – inaccurate – lacked balance – inadequately researched
Standard G1 – legitimate to report on research in progress – no uphold
Standard G6 – balance achieved in period of current interest – no uphold
Standard G15 – not relevant
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
"Safe and natural" plant estrogens were said to offer relief for symptoms of menopause according to an item on Dateline broadcast on TV3 on 26 April 2000 between 9.30–10.30pm.
Richard James complained to TV3 Network Services Ltd, the broadcaster, that the programme contained inaccuracies and was unbalanced. He argued that taking plant estrogens was likely to expose women to unacceptable health risks.
TV3’s initial response was an informal one. Addressing the points raised by Mr James, it maintained that the programme was not irresponsible, unbalanced or untrue. Mr James responded that he wished the matter to be dealt with by the Authority. TV3 then made a substantive response to the complaint. It emphasised that the item’s focus was on exploring developing treatments and research. It found no breach of standards and declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TV3’s response, Mr James referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons given below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the item complained about and have read the correspondence (and attachments) which is listed in the Appendix. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
Plant estrogens could be a safe and natural means of alleviating the symptoms of menopause, according to an item on Dateline broadcast on TV3 between 9.30–10.30pm on 26 April 2000. The item described research which had been undertaken at Wake Forest University where alternatives to Hormone Replacement Therapy were being investigated. A group of women who had taken soy supplements were said to have had menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes reduced. Reference was made to the fact that Japanese women, for whom soy was the major source of protein in their diets, had a very low incidence of menopausal health problems. The item also suggested that soy supplements could help with symptoms of ageing and protect against heart disease, osteoporosis and breast cancer. Soy products were described as a natural source of relief from menopausal symptoms It was reported that research was also being undertaken on synthetic estrogen supplements.
Richard James complained to TV3 that the item was inaccurate, unbalanced and was likely to have exposed women viewers to unacceptable health risks. He listed the following as grounds for his complaint:
"natural" and "safe" were not synonymous, Mr James argued. The implication that something which was natural was safe was, he said, misleading. In his view, the programme lacked balance.
There was an implication that Wake Forest University endorsed the claims made. Mr James said this was not true, and enclosed an article which showed that researchers at Wake Forest University specifically opposed such claims.
Several research projects have shown that the use of plant estrogens (either clover or soy) is not effective against menopausal symptoms. Mr James provided copies of scientific papers as evidence.
Mr James contended that the programme should have been checked for veracity, noting that the Australian Pharmaceutical Advertising Control Board had recently found that such claims were "misrepresented", "scientifically dishonest" and "misleading". He provided a report from the Australian Financial Review.
The programme was unbalanced because it did not report the high risk of cancers and thyroid diseases associated with plant estrogens. Mr James provided abstracts of three papers written by senior US Federal scientists.
The programme was untruthful in claiming that plant estrogens could improve brain function. In fact, Mr James noted, the reverse was the case. He provided a reference.
The programme was undated and did not reflect the current state of knowledge. In Mr James’s view, it was obsolete.
Mr James noted that there was no attribution for the programme. He suggested it could have been a publicity promotion for the United Soybean Board of America.
This general topic was the subject of another complaint to the Authority which was upheld as being untruthful and inaccurate.
An editorial in the 11 February 2000 issue of the NZ Medical Journal questioned the safety of soy formulas for infants. Mr James complained that TV3 had failed to check the veracity of its programme, or to obtain the knowledge available in New Zealand.
Mr James advised that unless TV3 presented a responsible programme which provided balance to the item complained about, a formal complaint would be sent to the Authority.
In its informal response, TV3 suggested that the issues involved complex scientific questions and advised that it might not be able to address all of Mr James’s concerns. It responded to the points above:
It agreed that natural and safe were not synonymous but noted that the programme did not say they were.
Discussion of the researchers at Wake Forest University did not imply they endorsed the claims made.
The programme highlighted different research projects under way.
Balance was achieved by the careful way in which the presenter ensured that alternative remedies or treatments were identified.
Research is ongoing as to the effect on brain function and this was made clear in the item.
The date of the programme is not relevant. It was made by NBC and broadcast on 15 December 1999.
The item was not a promotion.
TV3 said it was aware of the Authority’s earlier decision. It did not accept that the item was in breach of the codes or failed to take that decision into account.
The editorial in the NZ Medical Journal simply highlighted the ongoing nature of research in this area.
In TV3’s view, the programme was not irresponsible, unbalanced or untrue.
In a brief response to TV3, Mr James described its reply as nonsense. He maintained that the matter being dealt with was not a complex issue at all. He emphasised that there was no scientific evidence that the claims were true, but there was a huge body which said they were untrue. The programme, he said, lacked any vestige of balance as it did not suggest the risk of harm. He advised that since lodging the complaint he had received further information in support of his views. Copies of this were provided.
When he referred the matter to the Authority, Mr James repeated that the programme was unbalanced, untruthful and failed to disclose the risks associated with taking plant estrogens.
Mr James said he hoped that TV3 could be directed to broadcast a "truthful" programme on this subject.
TV3 then provided a substantive response. It assessed the complaint under standards G1 and G15 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. Standard G1 requires broadcasters:
G1 To be truthful and accurate on points of fact.
The other standard reads:
G15 The standards of integrity and reliability of information sources in news, current affairs and documentaries should be monitored regularly.
TV3 advised that its Standards Committee was not made up of scientists, that its technical skills were limited and that its focus was on ensuring its obligations in relation to broadcasting standards were met.
TV3 said it would not attempt to review the technical material provided, and was unable to make a finding on the relative merits of the different forms of treatment available either to deal with menopause or other deleterious effects of ageing. It advised that it had nothing to add to its previous response.
Having viewed the footage, TV3 said it was struck by the careful way in which the reporter explained the treatments under discussion. It noted that the remarks were prefaced by qualifiers such as "may", "could" and "seems". It wrote:
The whole thrust of the item was to explore developing treatments and research and the item ended with an invitation to viewers to ask questions or raise issues with a named health professional.
In the circumstances, TV3 advised it failed to see how the item could have been more balanced or careful.
In his further referral to the Authority, Mr James said he did not believe a great deal of scientific expertise was required to show the claims were not true and that the benefits did not exist.
He pointed to research done in New Zealand on isoflavone toxicity and asked why TV3 had not sought to interview local experts "instead of taking foreign, poor quality and inaccurate junk". He reiterated that if TV3 presented a programme of balance and offered equal time for the truth, then his complaint would be satisfied. He enclosed a copy of a decision made by the Australian Therapeutic Advertising Panel relating to the promotion of an isoflavone supplement which found that the product’s claims were not substantiated by the scientific evidence. In his view, the programme made similar claims to those made by the manufacturers of that supplement and was similarly at fault.
To TV3’s point that the language chosen was careful, Mr James responded that he had not recalled words such as "not", "will not" or "cannot", nor any mention of the risk. He referred to a 20/20 programme produced by ABC entitled "The Other side of Soy", which he suggested should be broadcast here.
In its response to the Authority, TV3 advised that it had broadcast the programme to which Mr James referred on 25 June 2000.
In his final comment, Mr James acknowledged that TV3 had aired the 20/20 programme, which he said he understood to have been the result of political pressure having been brought by his local MP.
However, he said, the broadcast was not an adequate response to his complaint. Not only was the programme complained about untruthful, but it did not reveal the known health damage that may be caused to vulnerable and sensitive women. The 20/20 programme, he noted, focused on baby food and the risk of brain damage and cancer to the general population. It did not once mention "menopause" or "health benefits", and therefore could not be construed as equal treatment of the claims made in the Dateline programme.
Mr James also noted that the 20/20 programme was broadcast some two months after the Dateline programme and was too remote in time and content to be an equal response.
Mr James advised that he had recommended that TV3 consult local scientists who had expertise in this area, but noted that that suggestion had not been followed. He provided further scientific papers which he said reinforced his contention that the Dateline material was "unsubstantiated garbage". He concluded:
[TV3’s] antipathy is socially unacceptable in a broadcaster which is required to give the public accurate information in its editorial programming.
In a further submission, Mr James provided a copy of an article entitled "Hormone Hype", which he considered the Authority would find interesting and germane.
The Authority acknowledges that it has received from Mr James a great deal of information from a variety of sources, including medical journals and internet sites, in support of his complaint that the programme breached broadcasting standards because it did not refer to what he maintains are the significant health risks associated with the use of soy products. It should be noted that the Authority is not an expert body which is capable of deliberating on the debate between those who advocate soy protein as a nutritional supplement, and those who argue otherwise. Its task is to adjudicate on broadcasting standards issues, and in particular, to decide whether the programme was truthful and accurate, and whether it was balanced.
Mr James referred the Authority to Decision No: 1999-148, dated 16 September 1999. That complaint was upheld on the grounds that the programme omitted to state that a so-called independent nutritionist, who recommended a named soy product in a cooking demonstration, was in fact a representative of the International Soy Advisory Board and closely associated with the company which manufactured the product. The Authority also found that the item omitted to mention that there was controversy over the claimed benefits of using soy products.
This complaint can be distinguished from the complaint dealt with in the earlier Decision. First, the Dateline item was a direct report on research currently being conducted in the US which was looking at soy as an alternative to hormone replacement therapy for women during and after menopause. Secondly, no particular product was promoted.
According to the researcher featured on the item, blind tests had indicated that soy supplements could help reduce hot flushes, irritability and sleep problems which some menopausal women suffer. It reported that there was also research into the claims that soy "may help" with some effects of ageing, such as heart disease, osteoporosis and breast cancer. Another solution to those health problems, the item continued, was a synthetic estrogen which, while it did not ease menopausal symptoms, was proving to be effective in treating osteoporosis and decreasing the risk of breast cancer. In summary, the doctor hosting the programme suggested that "while soy may prove to be a natural source of relief from menopausal symptoms, synthetic estrogens could protect post-menopausal women."
The complaint was considered by TV3 under standards G1 and G15 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which are cited above. In the Authority’s view, taking into account the original letter of complaint, standard G6 is also apposite. That standard requires broadcasters:
G6 To show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political matters, current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.
Turning to the complaint that standard G1 was breached because the item was untruthful and inaccurate, the Authority notes first that the item was a report on an actual research project being conducted at Wake Forest University. It reported on some preliminary findings and made conjectures about the application of those findings. Whether this is at odds with other scientific evidence as Mr James contends, it was, the Authority considers, legitimate to report on the research in progress. In the Authority’s view, the item was an accurate summary of the study which set out to establish if soy could be a reasonable alternative to traditional hormone replacement therapy. In reaching this conclusion, the Authority acknowledges that there is a great deal of scientific evidence to support Mr James’s contention that there are significant health risks in using soy products. However, it notes, the item made clear that the findings of the researchers were still preliminary. That was emphasised in the language used in the report which highlighted the conditional nature of the findings by words such as "may be", "may reduce", "can help", and "may prove". The Authority considers the item was not inaccurate in reporting on the results of the research, notwithstanding its omission of information about the possible harmful effects of soy products. It declines to uphold this aspect of the complaint.
Next, the Authority turns to the complaint that the item lacked balance. It notes that, although it was not specifically dealt with, TV3 when it declined to uphold the complaint under standards G1 and G15, had observed that it failed "to see how the item could have been more balanced or careful". In the Authority’s view, that acknowledgment suffices as a response on the balance issue.
Mr James has argued that the item was unbalanced because it omitted to refer to studies which have identified risks associated with consumption of soy products. The Authority understands that TV3 broadcast, on 25 June 2000, a programme entitled "The Other Side of Soy" which, according to Mr James, focused on the health risks of soy baby formulas and reported that soy is implicated in cancer and brain damage in the general population, but which did not once mention menopause. The Authority was not provided with a copy of the programme to view and notes that TV3 did not rely on this subsequent programme as providing balance. Nevertheless, in light of its understanding of the range of opinions held about the efficacy of soy products, the Authority’s view is that this second programme must be considered as part of the general debate about soy in the media. As such, given the tentative nature of the findings advanced in the item, the Authority accepts that it provided some balance to the Dateline item, in that it emphasised that consumption of soy was not free from risk, and that it demonstrated the broadcaster’s willingness to present different perspectives on this issue. In these circumstances, the Authority considers that the broadcaster’s obligation to provide balance was satisfied.
The Authority acknowledges the considerable amount of material provided by Mr James in support of his complaint. It reiterates that it does not have the expertise to make findings of fact. That is the task of an expert body in the health field. Nevertheless it records that in its view, it would behove broadcasters to acknowledge that the subject is controversial and ensure that balancing views are provided where appropriate.
The Authority makes no finding under standard G15 as it does not consider it to be relevant.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
14 September 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. Richard James’s Complaint to TV3 Network Services Ltd – 26 April 2000
2. TV3’s Response to the Complaint – 17 May 2000
3. Mr James’s letter to TV3 – 21 May 2000
4. TV3’s Response to Mr James – 31 May 2000
5. Mr James’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 1 June 2000
6. TV3’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 19 June 2000
7. Mr James’s Referral to the Authority – 21 June 2000
8. TV3’s Response to the Authority – 21 July 2000
9. Mr James’s Final Comment – 29 July 2000
10. Mr James’s Further Comment – 30 July 2000