BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

McDonald and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2011-136

Members
  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Mary Anne Shanahan
Dated
Complainant
  • Donald McDonald
Number
2011-136
Programme
TVNZ News
Channel/Station
TVNZ 7

Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
TVNZ News – stated that “your odds” of being hit by a piece of satellite were 1 in 3,200 – allegedly inaccurate

Findings
Standard 5 (accuracy) – item was inaccurate in stating that “your odds of being hit by a piece of this satellite... [were] 1 in 3,200” because they were the odds of anyone getting hit – misleading to then compare those odds and imply it was more likely than being in a car accident – however broadcaster could have expected to rely on reputable news agency and figures supplied by NASA – effect of inaccuracy not so serious as to outweigh the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression – not upheld

This headnote does not form part of the decision. 


Introduction

[1]  A pre-recorded item from ABC on TVNZ News, broadcast on TVNZ 7 on 23 September 2011, stated:

So what exactly are your odds of being hit by a piece of this satellite while you’re say, walking down the street? According to NASA, 1 in 3,200. So it’s unlikely, yes, but frankly not as unlikely as I’d like.

So to put that in perspective, consider your odds of being involved in a car accident sometime in the next two years: 1 in 5,244. Your odds of being hit by lightning: 1 in 10,000 during your lifetime.

[2]  Donald McDonald made a formal complaint to Television New Zealand Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the item was inaccurate. He argued that rather than referring to “your odds” the item should have referred to “someone”. He also pointed out that odds of 1 in 3,200 “implies high probability, 1,400 New Zealanders may be hurt and millions around the world”. Mr McDonald also considered it was inaccurate to imply that being hit by a piece of the satellite was more likely than a car accident or being struck by lightning.

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

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

Was the item inaccurate or misleading?

[5]  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.

[6]  We have viewed a number of articles on the internet, which make it quite clear that the statistics provided by NASA were misrepresented in the item. For example, one article states:

According to Mark Matney, a scientist in the Orbital Debris Program Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston, the odds that any of the 7 billion people on Earth will be struck by a piece of the soon-to-fall satellite is 1 in 3,200. “The odds that you will be hit... are 1 in several trillion,” Matney said. “So, quite low for any particular person.”1

[7]  This error in the item was then compounded by comparing these odds to being in a car accident, and implying that being hit by the satellite was more likely.

[8]  We therefore find that the item was misleading in its presentation of the statistics – namely, by stating that “your odds” of being hit by the satellite were 1 in 3,200, which, as Mr McDonald points out, suggests that 1,400 New Zealanders would be hit – and also because it suggested that being hit by the falling satellite was more likely than being in a car accident.

Did the broadcaster make reasonable efforts to ensure the item was accurate and did not mislead?

[9]  Having found that the item would have misled viewers, the next step is to consider whether the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to ensure that the item was not inaccurate or misleading.

[10]  TVNZ noted that the item came from ABC, “a well known and respected American broadcaster” and that the figures given were supplied by NASA. The broadcaster therefore considered that it had made reasonable efforts to ensure the item was accurate.

[11]  In our view, the somewhat astounding figures in the item should have been a red flag for the broadcaster, and it would have been preferable for checks to be carried out. However, we accept that the broadcaster used reliable sources (namely, ABC, and figures from NASA) and that it was reasonable to expect it could rely on them to be accurate.

Conclusion

[12]  While we have found that the item was misleading, taking an objective view, and given that TVNZ believed it was relying on reputable sources, we are satisfied that the error was not so significant or serious as to justify restricting the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression by upholding the complaint.

[13]  We therefore decline to uphold the complaint that the item breached Standard 5 (accuracy). Nevertheless, we remind broadcasters of the need to take care when reporting statistics, especially where they are using these statistics for the sake of emphasis. Broadcasters have a responsibility to ensure that all material facts are accurate, and need to take care when relying on facts stated in items not produced by them, even if the source of the item appears to be credible.

 

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

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
28 February 2012

Appendix

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

1                  Donald McDonald’s formal complaint – 27 September 2011

2                 TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 26 October 2011

3                 Mr McDonald’s referral to the Authority – 2 November 2011

4                 TVNZ’s response to the Authority – 29 November 2011


1http://www.lifeslittlemysteries.com/1781-falling-nasa-satellite-uars-risk.html