One News – item reported findings of preliminary study reported in Science – excessive amounts of vitamin C – possibly carcinogenic – inaccurate and unbalanced
Standard G1 – tentative nature of research stressed – no uphold
Standard G6 – care when interpreting result emphasised – no uphold
This headnote does not form part of the decision.
The preliminary results of a research programme which suggested that excessive doses of vitamin C might contribute to tissue damage linked to cancer was the subject of an item on One News broadcast at 6.00pm on 15 July 2001.
Glenn Seal complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the item was neither accurate nor balanced.
In response, TVNZ pointed out the item’s emphasis on the preliminary nature of the research, and added that it was not claimed that vitamin C caused cancer. It declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Seal referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
For the reasons below, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
The members of the Authority have viewed a tape of the programme complained about and have read the correspondence which is listed in the Appendix. The Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
One News is broadcast daily on TV One at 6.00pm by Television New Zealand Ltd. An item on One News on 15 July 2001 summarised an article in the journal Science which reported that the preliminary results of a research programme suggested that excessive doses of vitamin C might contribute to tissue damage which was linked to cancer.
Glenn Seal complained to TVNZ that the item was neither accurate nor balanced. That would have been confirmed, he continued, by a phone call to any university. Pointing out that cancer was a serious topic for cancer patients and for society, Mr Seal stated that the study reported was in vitro and that test tube results could be invalid when applied to human beings. Mr Seal noted that items on television about cancer could be misleading.
TVNZ assessed the complaint against standards G1 and G6 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice. They require broadcasters –
G1 To be truthful and accurate on points of fact.
G6 To show balance, impartiality and fairness in dealing with political matters, current affairs and all questions of a controversial nature.
TVNZ explained that at no time did the item claim that vitamin C caused cancer. Rather, the item summarised some preliminary findings which had been reported in a reputable journal. Further, TVNZ said, the item was newsworthy as it raised questions about dietary supplements which contained excessive doses of vitamin C.
Citing extracts from the item’s transcript, TVNZ said the reporter had emphasised the preliminary nature of the findings. As the item had dealt with the research rather than the possible risks of taking large doses of vitamin C, TVNZ argued that balancing comment was unnecessary. TVNZ also said that the item summarised the research accurately and declined to uphold the complaint.
Because he was dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Seal referred the complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority under s.8(1)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 1989.
Noting that TVNZ had highlighted the tentative nature of the research findings, Mr Seal contended that it was irresponsible for TVNZ to broadcast speculative items about products which might cause cancer. Such items, he said, were frustrating to cancer patients. Mr Seal expressed the view:
If it is not conclusive and it relates to cancer then it is irresponsible to go to air.
Mr Seal expanded on his complaint and argued that TVNZ should have sought balance for the item as it was dealing with an emotive subject. He wrote:
So I stand by my original complaint that this item was not researched at all by TVNZ, which as it deals with cancer, is highly irresponsible and lacking any investigative journalism, lacking any balance or fairness particularly for the viewing public when dealing with a serious subject such as cancer.
In its response to the Authority, TVNZ reiterated that the item’s source was reliable – a BBC report on a finding in the Science journal – and that the preliminary nature of the findings were stressed. It also noted that it had received no complaints about the item from any university.
Mr Seal reiterated what he described as his main complaint – that TVNZ did not try to obtain confirmation that vitamin C might cause cancer. He again referred to some research reports, earlier forwarded to the Authority, which found that vitamin C did not cause cancer. He considered TVNZ’s argument that the results were preliminary amounted to irresponsible journalism.
The Authority appreciates that news items about causes or cures for cancer are of intense interest to many in the community. Because of this high degree of public interest, it expects broadcasters to display particular care in regard to accuracy and balance.
Mr Seal complained that item which related vitamin C to cancer was both inaccurate and lacked balance. It was, he stressed, irresponsible to broadcast an item based on tentative findings.
TVNZ argued that the item emphasised the preliminary nature of the results. It had broadcast the item because it had been prepared by a reputable source, the BBC, and reported results contained in a reputable journal.
The Authority agrees with TVNZ that the item on this occasion complied with the standard of care in its cautious language and choice of reputable sources which is to be expected in an item which in some way deals with possible causes or treatment of cancer. It concludes that the item was responsible in focusing on the tentative nature of the research findings. Because of the careful manner in which the material in the item was presented, the Authority considers that it was neither inaccurate nor unbalanced.
For the reasons above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
25 October 2001
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint: