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Grieve and MediaWorks TV Ltd - 2016-019 (25 July 2016)

Members

  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Paula Rose

Complainant

  • Robin Grieve

Dated

25th July 2016

Number

2016-019

Programme

3 News

Channel/Station

TV3

Broadcaster

MediaWorks TV Ltd

Summary

[This summary does not form part of the decision.]

An item on 3 News reported that 2015 was the planet’s hottest year on record. The reporter stated that ‘the impacts of that record high are close to home’ and interviewed two New Zealand climate scientists about the finding. The Authority did not uphold a complaint alleging that it was inaccurate and unbalanced for the reporter to imply that recent severe weather events in New Zealand were caused by global warming. The scientists who gave their views in the item were respected local experts, and the inclusion of comment from them localised the findings for viewers in terms of what they might mean for New Zealanders. In terms of the balance standard, global warming is an ongoing contentious issue which is widely discussed so viewers could reasonably be expected to be aware of the range of perspectives on global warming.

Not Upheld: Accuracy, Controversial Issues


Introduction

[1]  An item on 3 News was introduced as follows: 

Last year [2015] was our planet’s hottest in 136 years of record-keeping. Scientists say data is indicating an alarming trend and is proof that the planet is on track to keep warming. As [name] reports, the record high has wide-reaching implications.

[2]  The reporter then interviewed two New Zealand climate scientists about this finding. She stated ‘the impacts of that record high are close to home’, referring to three floods which occurred in New Zealand in 2015.

[3]  Robin Grieve complained that it was inaccurate and unbalanced for the reporter to imply that recent floods in New Zealand were caused by global warming.

[4]  The issue is whether the broadcast breached the accuracy and controversial issues standards as set out in the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.1

[5]  The item was broadcast on 21 January 2016 on TV3. The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

The item

[6]  Following the item’s introduction, footage of bushfires and flooding was shown and the reporter commented in a voiceover, ‘Devastating fires and intense flooding – last year we saw the extremes from global warming that scientists have been warning of’.

[7]  This was followed by comment from NIWA (The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research) scientist Brett Mullan, who said, ‘It is alarming – I guess in some ways, pleasing – to see the projections come true in a sense that what we have been saying for a long time... we’re now seeing in the records’.

[8]  The reporter then stated, ‘And the impacts of that record high are close to home’. The item moved to an interview with a second climate scientist, Professor James Renwick, who said, ‘In the space of a month or so we had three near-record floods’, referring to floods in Whanganui, South Dunedin and Kapiti/Petone in 2015. Footage of that flooding, as well as bushfires, was again shown while the reporter described the footage as ‘Effects of a global trend scientists say can’t be ignored’.

[9]  Professor Renwick then stated, ‘There is a very clear upward trend and temperatures are now about a degree warmer than they were at the end of the 19th century’. The reporter explained, ‘That means we are already halfway to the two-degree warming limit world leaders pledged to last year’. Professor Renwick also commented that ‘Greenhouse gas emissions have gone up and up and up in the last 25 years. If we’d got on to the problem in 1990, the world would be a very different place now and we wouldn’t have a problem.’

[10]  The reporter explained:

El Niño is responsible for the sharp increase in temperature last year, but scientists say even without it, 2015 would have been a record year, thanks to human activity.

[11]  The item finished with comment from Professor Renwick that if we did not address global warming, ‘our children’s generation and their children’s generation are going to face an unimaginably more difficult future’. The reporter then concluded, ‘All indications are that 2016 is on track to be warmer again’.

Preliminary issue – scope of complaint

[12]  Mr Grieve explicitly raised the accuracy standard in his original complaint, but in the body of his complaint he also stated the item was ‘unbalanced because while the scientists put their view there was no counter view or reference to facts which do not support the scientists’ views’. In his final comments Mr Grieve also said, ‘the big problem is that [the broadcaster] provides no balance on the subject’. The broadcaster considered Mr Grieve’s complaint under the accuracy standard only.

[13]  The Authority’s well-established approach to the issue of the scope of complaints is to consider any standards raised either explicitly or implicitly in the original complaint.2 In our view Mr Grieve clearly referred in his complaint to the item being unbalanced as well as inaccurate. We therefore requested further submissions from the broadcaster in relation to the balance standard, and have proceeded to consider Mr Grieve’s complaint under both the balance and accuracy standards.

Was the broadcast inaccurate or misleading?

[14]  The accuracy standard (Standard 5) states that broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure that news, current affairs and factual programming is accurate in relation to all material points of fact, and does not mislead. The objective of this standard is to protect audiences from receiving misinformation and thereby being misled.

[15]  Mr Grieve argued it was inaccurate for the reporter to state that ‘the impacts of that record high are close to home’, as this asserted that the three local floods referred to were caused by global warming, which in his view was incorrect. He asserted that the broadcast would have been accurate if the broadcaster had identified the experts’ statements as their opinions, based on climate models.

[16]  Mr Grieve referred to a report titled Environment Aotearoa, which he said found that there was no statistically significant trend showing any increase in flooding or other extreme weather events. He pointed to data from NIWA showing the local flooding was ‘nothing unusual’ and 2015 was not a particularly warm year for New Zealand (even if it was the planet’s hottest). Mr Grieve also referred to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which he said found ‘no increase in flooding globally and no increase in extreme weather events due to global warming’. He maintained there was no correlation between temperatures and floods and considered that the item alarmed and misled viewers.

[17]  MediaWorks argued that the comments about local flooding were a backdrop to the story’s primary focus, which was a report released by NASA showing ‘the 2015 temperature record as evidence of the clear upward global temperature trend’. It considered the references to, and footage of, the floods were illustrative of increasing global temperatures, as determined by the experts consulted for the item. MediaWorks referred to the NIWA Climate Summary for May and June 2015 as the basis for asserting that the floods were ‘near-record’ events.

[18]  MediaWorks also sought further comment from Professor Renwick about the research methodology used in his analysis and his views on Mr Grieve’s complaint. MediaWorks stated his position was not that local floods were a global phenomenon or that they were caused by local events, but rather that New Zealand is affected by storms that may form a great distance away. It considered there was no reason to suggest that Professor Renwick was not credible.

[19]  MediaWorks also argued that the Environment Aotearoa report Mr Grieve referred to did not include the data he alleged. It maintained that increasing numbers of studies are finding that the probability of occurrence of events associated with extremely high temperatures has increased substantially due to large-scale warming since the mid-20th century and it was possible to attribute, via a multi-step procedure, some of the increase in probability of these regional events to human influence. MediaWorks concluded that the item was not inaccurate in relation to any material point of fact and did not mislead.

[20]  We note at the outset that it is not the role of this Authority to make definitive findings on complex and controversial scientific issues such as global warming. To do so would overstep our jurisdiction and area of expertise. Our task is the narrower one of determining whether the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to ensure accuracy. For the reasons outlined below, we are satisfied that it did.

[21]  The findings referred to during the item’s introduction were apparently drawn from a report released that day by NASA.4 The reporter then focused the item on analysis of the report provided by two local climate scientists. By taking this angle, the broadcaster endeavoured to localise the report’s findings and place the story in a New Zealand context for viewers.

[22]  We accept that Professor Renwick and Mr Mullen are respected local scientists who lent their expertise to the item, and on whom the broadcaster was entitled to rely. With regard to Mr Grieve’s specific complaint, MediaWorks advised that the reporter drew on Professor Renwick’s findings to link the effects of global warming to the recent ‘near-record’ local floods. The complainant may hold different views on the issue of global warming or form a different interpretation of available scientific data on the issue, but this does not necessarily invalidate the findings of the experts relied upon or mean that standards were breached.

[23]  We acknowledge it may have been preferable for the reporter to make it clear that her statement linking the report’s findings to the recent New Zealand floods was based on the scientist’s views. However, taking into account the item as a whole and the nature of the topic (discussed further in our consideration of balance below) we are not persuaded that this resulted in the item being inaccurate or otherwise misleading.

[24]  For these reasons we do not find a breach of Standard 5.

Was the item sufficiently balanced?

[25]  The balance standard (Standard 4) states that when controversial issues of public importance are discussed in news, current affairs and factual programmes, broadcasters should make reasonable efforts, or give reasonable opportunities, to present significant points of view either in the same programme or in other programmes within the period of current interest. The standard exists to ensure that competing arguments are presented to enable a viewer to arrive at an informed and reasoned opinion.5

[26]  Mr Grieve argued that the item was unbalanced as no counter views or evidence contrary to that of the scientists interviewed were put forward. He considered the broadcaster provided no balance on the perspective that the recent floods in New Zealand were caused by global warming.

[27]  MediaWorks argued that, taking into account the nature of the issue of global warming and the ‘virtually perpetual’ period of current interest, it was reasonable to expect that the audience would be aware of the range of views on the issue, including those expressed in other coverage. MediaWorks also reiterated its view that 3 News ‘was justified in relying on and broadcasting the opinions of professional climate scientists, who have an in-depth understanding of the subject in question’.

[28]  A number of criteria must be satisfied before the requirement to present significant alternative viewpoints is triggered. The standard applies only to news, current affairs and factual programmes which discuss a controversial issue of public importance. The subject matter must be an issue ‘of public importance’, it must be ‘controversial’, and it must be ‘discussed’.6

[29]  The Authority has typically defined an issue of public importance as something that would have a ‘significant potential impact on, or be of concern to, members of the New Zealand public’.7 A controversial issue is one which has topical currency and excites conflicting opinion or about which there has been ongoing public debate.8

[30]  We agree with the broadcaster that global warming is a ‘long-running, ongoing, spirited and very public’ issue. In a previous decision on a complaint alleging that a Seven Sharp item on global warming was unbalanced, the Authority noted that there is now a proliferation of broadcast media, meaning that audiences no longer have to be presented with all significant viewpoints in one broadcast, and also a more discerning viewing public.9 In regards to balance and the issue of global warming it said:10

We do not think that there will be many people in New Zealand who are unaware of the swirl of arguments around global warming. We do not think that there will be many people who are unaware that at one end of the spectrum of views there are those who say it is the greatest issue facing mankind, and at the other end of the spectrum there are those who say it is a myth. In applying broadcasting standards we need to look at the viewers and listeners who live in the real open world rather than those who live in isolation and who in this instance might come out, look at Seven Sharp, be misled by an unbalanced presentation and retire anxiously to be concerned about the future.
...we think there is a level of sophistication and awareness in New Zealand around the issue of, and ongoing debate about, climate change...

[31]  In our view the Authority’s reasoning in that case equally applies here. Global warming is a highly contentious and extensively discussed topic and it is reasonable to expect that viewers are aware of the widely differing perspectives on the issue. Alternative viewpoints on global warming to those expressed in the item are regularly available in other coverage in all forms of media. We do not consider this brief news item, which was under two minutes in length and focused on the views of respected local climate scientists, would have resulted in viewers being unable to form their own views about global warming or its effects.

[32]  Accordingly, we do not find a breach of Standard 4.

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich

Chair

25 July 2016

 

Appendix

The correspondence listed below was received and considered by the Authority when it determined this complaint:

1      Robin Grieve’s formal complaint – 28 January 2016
2      MediaWorks’ response to the complaint – 25 February 2016
3      Mr Grieve’s referral to the Authority – 24 March 2016
4      MediaWorks’ response to the Authority – 27 April 2016
5      Mr Grieve’s final comments – 11 May 2016
6      MediaWorks’ response to the Authority’s request for further submissions – 27 June 2016
7      Mr Grieve’s response to the Authority’s request for further submissions – 4 July 2016

 


This complaint was determined under the previous Free-to-Air Television Code, which applied up until 31 March 2016. The new Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook took effect on 1 April 2016 and applies to any programmes broadcast on or after that date: http://bsa.govt.nz/standards/overview

For example, see Dunstan and Radio New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2015-052 at [7]

Bush and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2010-036

4‘NASA, NOAA Analyses Reveal Record-Shattering Global Warm Temperatures in 2015’, 21 January 2016, http://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-noaa-analyses-reveal-record-shattering-global-warm-temperatures-in-2015 

5 Commerce Commission and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-014

For further discussion of these concepts see Practice Note: Controversial Issues – Viewpoints (Balance) as a Broadcasting Standard in Television (Broadcasting Standards Authority, June 2010) and Practice Note: Controversial Issues – Viewpoints (Balance) as a Broadcasting Standard in Radio (Broadcasting Standards Authority, June 2009)

McMillan and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2005-125

See, for example, Dewe and TVWorks Ltd, Decision No. 2008-076

McMillan and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2013-025 at [25]

10 As above at [30] to [31]