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Simpson and TVWorks Ltd - 2012-019

Members
  • Peter Radich (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Te Raumawhitu Kupenga
  • Mary Anne Shanahan
Dated
Complainant
  • Ian Simpson
Number
2012-019
Programme
3 News
Broadcaster
TVWorks Ltd
Channel/Station
TV3 # 3

Complaint under section 8(1B)(b)(i) of the Broadcasting Act 1989
3 News – item reported on aftershocks in Christchurch – was introduced with the statement “it’s just what Christchurch does not want to hear, warnings that a big one, seven on the Richter scale, is probably coming” – included extract of interview with geologist – allegedly in breach of standards relating to accuracy, responsible programming and good taste and decency 

Findings
Standard 5 (accuracy) – introductory statement inaccurately summarised geologist’s opinion – overstated the prediction of a magnitude seven earthquake by suggesting a high likelihood of occurrence – broadcaster did not make reasonable efforts to ensure that the item was accurate and did not mislead – upheld

Standard 8 (responsible programming) – introductory statement was unnecessarily alarmist – likely to have caused undue distress for Christchurch residents – upheld

No Order

This headnote does not form part of the decision.


Introduction

[1]  An item on 3 News, broadcast on TV3 on 2 January 2012, reported on a series of aftershocks experienced overnight in earthquake-stricken Christchurch. The  presenter introduced the item as follows:

Well, it’s just what Christchurch does not want to hear, warnings that a big one, seven on the Richter scale, is probably coming. The word comes from Canterbury University scientists who have been looking at a marked increase in seismic activity at a fault off the eastern coast line.

[2]  The item included extracts from an interview with geologist Mark Quigley, interspersed between comments from the reporter by voiceover, as follows:

Quigley:          It’s a virtual certainty of getting more earthquakes of greater than five, and I’d
                     say a moderate chance of even another six going forward.

Voiceover:      Quigley says the location of these most recent aftershocks means there is
                     concern about a group of faults in Pegasus Bay, including faults off-shore in
                     Kaiapoi. These haven’t ruptured for thousands of years but are big enough to
                     generate a quake of magnitude seven.

Quigley:         Because of the way things are shifting around out there, I think it’s difficult
                     for us, we don’t know exactly when the last event was. It is difficult to put
                     our finger on that precisely and also the precise recurrence interval.

[3]  Ian Simpson made a formal complaint to TVWorks Ltd, the broadcaster, alleging that the item misquoted Mr Quigley about the probability of a magnitude seven earthquake generated by the Pegasus Bay fault lines. He considered that the report was unnecessarily alarmist and would have caused increased stress for Christchurch residents.

[4]  TVWorks assessed the complaint under Standards 5 (accuracy) and 8 (responsible programming), though Mr Simpson also raised Standard 1 (good taste and decency) in his original complaint. We agree with the broadcaster’s decision to assess the complaint under the standards most relevant to the complainant’s concerns.

[5]  The issue therefore is whether the item breached Standards 5 and 8 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[6]  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 item inaccurate or misleading?

[7]  Standard 5 (accuracy) 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

[8]  Mr Simpson argued that the reporter misquoted Mr Quigley with regard to the likelihood of a magnitude seven earthquake in Christchurch. In particular, he referred to the introductory statement, followed by the interview with Mr Quigley, the “scientist in question”. The complainant stated, “The expert you quoted (or misquoted) is very vague about the possibility of any activity at all from the group of faults in Pegasus Bay, and absolutely doesn’t suggest any certainty that there will likely be a magnitude seven quake...”

[9]  TVWorks noted that the references to a magnitude seven earthquake were based on warnings issued by Mr Quigley in the extended interview which was available on the 3 News website. Having viewed the relevant part of the interview online, we can confirm that Mr Quigley stated, “There is the Pegasus Bay fault that has been identified off-shore of Kaiapoi. It is of sufficient length to generate a major earthquake, I mean in the order of magnitude seven or so”.2

[10]  The issue therefore, is whether the off-screen comments made by Mr Quigley justified the statement made in the introduction, that “it’s just what Christchurch does not want to hear, warnings that a big one, seven on the Richter scale, is probably coming.”

[11]  In our view, the presenter’s introductory statement that a magnitude seven earthquake was “probably coming” overstated Mr Quigley’s position. We consider that viewers would have interpreted the word “probably” in its colloquial sense to mean that there was a high likelihood of occurrence. We agree with the complainant that the presenter’s use of the “very loaded” term “probably” was not supported by any direct quote in the item from Mr Quigley, and was inconsistent with Mr Quigley’s opinion as presented, which was “very vague” and used conditional terms such as “if” and “potential”, suggesting only a possibility of occurrence.  

[12]  We are therefore satisfied that the item was inaccurate and would have misled viewers in this respect. We must next consider whether the broadcaster made reasonable efforts to ensure that the information broadcast was accurate and did not mislead.

[13]  The producer of the news item stated that, having spoken to Mr Quigley, he formed the impression that a surge in seismic activity made the likelihood of an earthquake stronger than it had been. He said, “In my mind it had gone from a possibility to something more probable – but with no time scale, and not necessarily just around the corner...” It appears that the producer believed that the introductory statement was an accurate summary of Mr Quigley’s opinion. 

[14]  While we accept that the producer formed a particular view having spoken to Mr Quigley, we do not consider that the conclusion drawn by him was reasonably available from Mr Quigley’s comments. Considering the plight and vulnerability of Christchurch residents following the earthquake on 22 February 2011 and continuing aftershocks, we are of the view that particular care should have been taken to ensure that the broadcast of information relating to the likelihood of another earthquake was accurate. The producer could have checked that he had correctly understood, and that the item accurately paraphrased, Mr Quigley’s position. In these circumstances, we find that the broadcaster did not make reasonable efforts to ensure the accuracy of the information broadcast.

[15]  We are satisfied that the potential harm to viewers in being misled by the introductory statement outweighed the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression on this occasion. Accordingly, we uphold the Standard 5 complaint.

Did the item breach the responsible programming standard?

[16]  Standard 8 requires that programmes are not presented in such a way as to cause viewers panic, unwarranted alarm or undue distress.

[17]  TVWorks argued that there was no intention to alarm viewers or the people of Christchurch. While it acknowledged that it received many complaints which were motivated by a “genuine empathy and concern” for Christchurch residents, it said that there was no evidence that the story did in fact cause “general” panic. Further, it contended that news could not be censored in favour of engineering a “desired” response from viewers.

[18]  However, we note that the producer of the news item appeared to accept that the story had caused alarm. They said that the aim of the item was to tell people that there was a surge in activity, and as a result of this, there was talk of a magnitude seven earthquake. The producer stated, “Consequently I was a bit surprised to hear a couple of days later that it had caused alarm – and I was sorry to hear it did.”

[19]  Given the sensitivity of the issue for Christchurch residents, we consider that the introductory statement which overstated Mr Quigley’s views by indicating that a magnitude seven earthquake was “probably coming”, was unnecessarily alarmist and would have caused undue distress for those living in Christchurch. In our view, the introductory statement was exactly the type of content to which this aspect of the responsible programming standard is intended to apply.

[20]  We consider that upholding the complaint would be a proportionate and reasonable limit on the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression, considering the potential harm caused by the broadcast of the statement. We are not making a finding that the item should not have been broadcast. Rather, TVWorks could have simply reported the views of the geologist accurately and without characterising them in a way that would likely cause alarm, or at the very least it could have included Mr Quigley’s comments unedited so that viewers could make up their own minds about the “probability” of a magnitude seven earthquake occurring.

[21]  Accordingly, we uphold the Standard 8 complaint.

 

For the above reasons the Authority upholds the complaint that the broadcast by TVWorks Ltd of an item on 3 News on 2 January 2012 breached Standards 5 and 8 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice.

[22]  Having upheld the complaint, we may make orders under sections 13 and 16 of the Broadcasting Act 1989. We do not intend to do so on this occasion. We note that TVWorks took a number of steps to mitigate any alarm caused by the item, for example by broadcasting programming throughout the week in which various experts expressed alternative views on the likelihood of a magnitude seven earthquake. In addition, the broadcaster made further information available on the 3 News website.

[23]  We consider that this decision is sufficient to correct the error by advising viewers of the correct position and that it will serve as a reminder to broadcasters to take particular care to ensure accuracy when reporting on sensitive issues.

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Peter Radich
Chair
1 May 2012

Appendix

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

1                  Ian Simpson’s formal complaint – 2 January 2012

2                 TVWorks’ response to the complaint – 13 February 2012

3                 Mr Simpson’s referral to the Authority – 14 February 2012

4                 TVWorks’ response to the Authority – 16 March 2012


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

2http://www.3news.co.nz/Full-interview-Geologist-on-Christchurch-quake-risk/tabid/423/articleID/238151/Default.aspx