BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Caswell and TVWorks Ltd - 2012-120

Members
  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Mary Anne Shanahan
Dated
Complainant
  • Mark Caswell
Number
2012-120
Broadcaster
TVWorks Ltd
Channel/Station
TV3 # 3

Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989

What’s Really In Our Food? – included a human experiment to test the effects of Omega 3 on attention span in young boys – allegedly in breach of accuracy standard

Findings
Standard 5 (accuracy) – experiment was clearly intended to be light-hearted and entertaining and did not purport to be scientifically rigorous or reliable – conclusions drawn from the experiment were very vague and qualified by words such as “could’ and “may” – viewers would not have been misled – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Introduction

[1]  An episode of What’s Really In Our Food?, a weekly television series investigating different food groups, and exploring the potential health benefits and/or risks associated with those foods, contained a human experiment to test the effects of Omega 3 on attention span in young boys. The episode was broadcast on 4 September 2012 on TV3.

[2]  Mark Caswell made a formal complaint to TVWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, saying he had “serious concerns” about the “alleged experiment” because it did not adhere to the requirements of a randomised, controlled trial, yet was presented as scientifically rigorous.

[3]  The issue is whether the broadcast breached Standard 5 (accuracy) of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[4]  The members of the Authority have viewed a recording of the broadcast complained about and have read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

Was the broadcast inaccurate or misleading?

[5]  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.1

[6]  Mr Caswell argued that the experiment design was so flawed that no conclusions could be drawn about the effect of Omega 3 on attention span, and that it was therefore inaccurate for the programme to conclude that Omega 3 “could improve attention, but you may need to increase your intake”. He considered that viewers would attach similar weight to the content of the show as they would peer-reviewed scientific research, and argued that the limitations of the experiment should have been outlined in the programme.

[7]  TVWorks argued that the test did not purport to meet the same rigorous methodological standards found in scientific research, but instead aimed to highlight and disseminate interesting information in a simple and entertaining way. The programme did not reach any firm conclusions because of the limitations of the experiment, it said.

[8]  We accept that the series as a whole informs the public about health and nutrition, and that some viewers would use the programme to assist them in making positive food choices. However, the ‘Human Experiment’ segment subject to complaint was clearly intended to be light-hearted and entertaining, and primarily just for fun, and we think this would have been obvious to reasonable viewers.

[9]  This segment is a feature of every episode, and involves scientific theories being put to the test using volunteer lay people. Earlier in the programme, another experiment involved builders eating fish and chips with different levels of salt content, to test the theory that “salt makes us eat more”. Both experiments were superficial and non-scientific and presented in a magazine-style format; they did not purport to be scientifically robust or to have the same status as peer-reviewed scientific studies.

[10]  The Omega 3 experiment involved a group of boys undertaking very basic tests to assess their sustained and focused attention, both before and after consuming salmon and Omega 3 supplements over a five-week period. It was introduced as follows:

Among the long list of Omega 3’s potential benefits is improved attention span in children. As a mum, I am definitely keen to find out if it does make a difference, so I have come to [name] primary school, to put the theory to the test.

[11]  The presenter stated, in a good-humoured tone, “A class of enthusiastic students have volunteered to help us out. In general, it seems to be the boys who lack focus”. This was accompanied by footage of boys throwing paper around a class room. Girls from the class made comments such as, “They [the boys] always end up doodling on their pages, instead of doing maths.”

[12]  In addition to the light-hearted tone of the segment, the conclusions drawn from the experiment about the effects of Omega 3 were vague and imprecise, and it was evident that overall there were no significant changes. Considering whether the boys’ sustained and focused attention had improved since increasing their daily intake of Omega 3, the presenter stated, “Looks like it’s hard to tell… the official analysis shows only a slight improvement, and the focused attention results were pretty much the same…” At the end of the segment, the presenter said:

So Omega 3 could improve attention span, but you may need to increase your intake for longer than five weeks to notice much of a difference. And make sure you keep eating fish, kids, because not only could it help you focus, it’s good for your brain, eyes and heart. [our emphasis]

[13]  The segment also included comments from students and the teacher about perceived changes in the boys’ behaviour, which reinforced the light-hearted nature of the segment. For example, the girls commented, “They’re not as annoying,” and, “They’re just a little bit better, though.” The boys’ teacher said, “They have managed to complete tasks that they’ve been set without interrupting others or being distracted.”

[14]  Given the transparent nature of the superficial and non-scientific testing, and the vague conclusions drawn from the experiment, we are satisfied that viewers would not have been misled. The alleged harm caused by the broadcast did not outweigh the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression in showing a fun and light-hearted experiment, which, at most, encouraged viewers to eat fish because it’s “good” for them.

[15]  Accordingly, we decline to uphold the accuracy complaint.

 

For the above reasons the Authority declines to uphold the complaint.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
27 February 2013

Appendix

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

1           Mark Caswell’s formal complaint – 5 September 2012

2          TVWorks’ response to the complaint – 19 September 2012

3          Mr Caswell’s referral to the Authority – 1 October 2012

4         
Email from Dr Oliver Mudford in support of Mr Caswell’s complaint – 23 November 2012

5          TVWorks’ response to the Authority – 18 January 2013

6          Mr Caswell’s final comment – 29 January 2013

7          TVWorks’ final comment – 30 January 2013

8          Further comment from Mr Caswell – 30 January 2013


1
Bush and Television New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2010-036