A reduction in unemployment levels was illustrated by use of a graph in a news item broadcast on One Network News on 4 November 1999 between 6.00–7.00pm.
Mr Kammler complained to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, that the visual message of the graph was distorted because the vertical axis had not started at zero. As a result, he said, the decline in the unemployment level appeared to be greater than it actually was. In his view the item had not reflected the truth.
TVNZ acknowledged Mr Kammler’s argument, but said it was necessary to see the graph in its television context, where its function was to convey a stylistic indication of a trend, rather than being very specific information – such as in a written text – which could be referred back to later. It agreed that ideally the vertical axis should have started at zero, but pointed out that on a television screen, all of the information conveyed would have been telescoped at the top. As a further point, it noted that the actual numbers of unemployed, and the decline, were accurately reported. It denied that there was any intention to mislead viewers and declined to uphold the complaint.
Dissatisfied with TVNZ’s decision, Mr Kammler 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 which is listed in the Appendix. On this occasion, the Authority determines the complaint without a formal hearing.
A news item on One Network News broadcast on TV One on 4 November 1999 referred to a recent drop in unemployment levels. A graph accompanying the item provided a visual reference.
K H Peter Kammler complained to TVNZ that the graph was misleading because its vertical axis did not start at zero. He maintained that the visual message had been distorted because the graph started at 100,000 unemployed, and as a result, the curve declined steeply. He provided two graphs which he said illustrated his point, one as TVNZ had represented the figures, and the other with the vertical axis beginning at zero. The result, he noted, was that the decline was less pronounced in the second graph and correctly illustrated the trend. At best, he said, the item could be seen as sloppy journalism and, at worst, that the fall in unemployment had been deliberately overstated.
TVNZ advised that it had assessed the complaint under standard G14 of the Television Code of Broadcasting Practice, which provides:
G14 News must be presented accurately, objectively and impartially.
It acknowledged Mr Kammler’s point, but argued that it believed it was necessary to see the graph in its television context, and to realise that graphics served a different purpose in this medium from in the print media. In the printed media, it noted, the reader had the opportunity to refer back to a graph for information, whereas when it was on screen, the image was very transitory. The purpose of such a graph in the television context, it continued, was to provide a stylistic indication of a trend rather than very specific information.
While TVNZ agreed that ideally a graph should start from zero, in this case it considered that had it done so the visual image would have been telescoped at the very top of the screen. Further, it argued, the graph was shown in conjunction with commentary which accurately reported the actual numbers of the drop, and another visual which showed the decline from 7.4 to 6.8 per cent. It accepted that the graph as shown may have accentuated the curve, but considered that the information conveyed both in actual figures and in reflecting a downward trend was accurate.
TVNZ did not accept that the item represented either sloppy journalism or an attempt to mislead viewers. The graph was, it said, strictly illustrative and was never intended to be put to the same use by viewers as would a similar graph in a printed statistical survey. It concluded that Mr Kammler had made a sound point but one which was "perhaps not applicable in this particular electronic context". It declined to uphold the complaint.
Mr Kammler expressed his dissatisfaction with TVNZ’s decision and asked the Authority to make a ruling on his complaint.
When asked to comment further on the complaint, TVNZ repeated that while the graph was not strictly orthodox, it was appropriate for use in the television context and was accurate in the information it conveyed.
It is not in dispute that the graph "was not strictly orthodox" in that its vertical axis did not begin at zero. The Authority’s task is to decide whether it conveyed misleading information which thus breached broadcasting standards.
The item, the Authority notes, reported that there had been a decline in the number of unemployed, which was said to have reached the lowest number in two years. The graph showed the decline from a peak of 138,000 to 128,000 and, superimposed along the bottom axis, the percentage drop in unemployed was shown. The information was also conveyed in the spoken text. The complainant contends that the graph exaggerated the rate of decline and that had it been drawn correctly it would have shown that the decline was relatively indiscernible.
While the Authority accepts that the graph exaggerated the reduction in unemployed numbers, it notes that the information conveyed was repeated both in the spoken text and in the percentage numbers given at the bottom of the graph. While the visual representation on the graph was somewhat exaggerated, it does not consider this would have distorted the facts to the extent that a breach of broadcasting standards resulted. The Authority accepts that the graph was simply a stylistic representation of the trend being reported. Accordingly, it declines to uphold the complaint.
For the reasons set forth above, the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority
14 February 2000
The following correspondence was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:
1. K H Peter Kammler’s Complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd – 5 November 1999
2. TVNZ’s Response to the Formal Complaint – 6 December 1999
3. Mr Kammler’s Referral to the Broadcasting Standards Authority – 14 December 1999
4. Mr Kammler’s Further Comment – 20 December 1999
5. TVNZ’s Response to the Authority – 21 December 1999