BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

Ancel and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2020-112 (16 March 2021)

Members
  • Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Paula Rose QSO
  • Susie Staley MNZM
Dated
Complainant
  • Robbie Ancel
Number
2020-112
Programme
1 News
Channel/Station
TV One

Summary  

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

A 1 News item reported on studies showing an increase in emperor penguin numbers in the Antarctic, followed by ‘a word of caution’ about the danger posed to the penguin population by climate change. The Authority did not uphold a complaint that the second part of the piece, which included a forecast that the global population of emperor penguins could decrease by half by the end of this century, was based on ‘unproven science’. Considering, in particular, the subject matter, language and manner of presentation, the Authority found viewers were likely to interpret the comments and predictions as analysis or opinion to which the accuracy standard does not apply. Given the wide social acceptance of the existence and predicted impacts of climate change, the Authority did not consider the item discussed a ‘controversial issue’. Therefore the balance standard and the requirement to present alternative viewpoints did not apply.

Not Upheld: Accuracy, Balance


The broadcast

[1]  On 7 August 2020, 1 News (TVNZ 1) featured a BBC report about studies showing an increase in emperor penguin numbers in the Antarctic, as well as the risks climate change poses to emperor penguins longer-term. The relevant segment of the report follows:

[British Antarctic Survey Geographer] We've found about 25-55,000 new penguins located in 11 emperor penguin colonies. It's great to have more emperor penguins, because this is a species which is really quite vulnerable to climate change and we expect over the coming decades that the numbers will reduce dramatically.

[BBC Reporter] Emperor penguins’ whole life cycle is centred on the sea ice. So the scientists say this good news about their population size comes with a note of caution. All of the new colonies are in vulnerable areas – places where the best climate models predict that the ice will diminish in the coming decades. One forecast suggests that the global population of emperors could crash by half by the end of this century. Reducing carbon emissions to limit the global temperature rise, researchers say, is the only way to protect the frozen habitats that these birds depend on.

The complaint

[2]  Mr Ancel complained the broadcast breached the accuracy and balance standards:

  • ‘The second part of the news item was not news. …a dire warning was issued that the [emperor penguins] were at risk of dying out by the end of the century due to global warming. …this last part was NOT NEWS. It was a prediction, a guess, a foretelling, a prophecy based upon still unproven science.’
  • ‘In the 60s the greatest scientists in the world predicted a new ice age. In the 80s these same scientists predicted a new global warming threat. [The] film “An inconvenient truth” predicted by 2020 that the Arctic would be gone. (Not happening). That there would be considerable sea rise. (Not happening). Which all goes to show that the science is still unproven.’
  • ‘Predictions due to global warming based upon a still unproved science should not be included in news items.’

[3]  In his referral to the Authority, Mr Ancel added:

  • ‘NZ fossils show penguins survived the dinosaur extinction. That they survived the 3 major melter events 13,000 years ago when sea levels rose 20m. They survive and are thriving in the harshest environment on earth. In fact a slight raise in C02 levels will be producing more plankton and krill for them to eat.’
  • ‘The original scientific paper [reported on] is peppered with statements advising the science is unclear, and developing and unproven and that the statement of colony collapse is based upon data modelling of the state of Antarctica’s climate going into the future.’
  • ‘The first part of the item was factual and fine. The second part on extinction was not accurate, was based upon a view which was believed but unprovable therefore a statement of fiction. TVNZ did not make reasonable efforts to ensure accuracy.’

The broadcaster’s response

[4]  TVNZ did not uphold Mr Ancel’s complaint, saying:

Accuracy

  • ‘The comments are presented as expert opinion or analysis of the presently available information. The requirement for accuracy does not apply to statements which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion which these comments are.’

Balance

  • TVNZ does not consider global climate change to be a controversial issue of public importance. ‘While we understand that some people hold the view that global climate change is a hoax or unproven science, this is not the dominant view of climate scientists.’
  • ‘[In] light of the widespread media coverage and national discussion that has surrounded global climate change… viewers could reasonably be expected to be aware of a range of perspectives on this issue... no balancing material or viewpoint was required from climate change doubters in the reporting.’

The standards

[5]  The accuracy standard1 states broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure any news, current affairs or factual programme is accurate in relation to all material points of fact, and does not mislead. It protects the public from being significantly misinformed.2

[6]  The balance standard3 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.

Our analysis

[7]  We have watched the broadcast and read the correspondence listed in the Appendix.

[8]  We have also considered the right to freedom of expression, which is our starting point. This includes the broadcaster’s right to impart, and the audience’s right to receive, different ideas and information. We may only intervene and uphold a complaint where the broadcast has caused actual or potential harm at a level that justifies limiting the right to freedom of expression. For the reasons below, we have not found such harm in this case.

Accuracy

[9]  The complainant’s main concern appears to be with the forecast reduction in the global emperor penguin population. He alleges this was based, in his view, on ‘unproven science’. The relevant forecasts included in the item were:

  • ‘…we expect over the coming decades that the numbers [of emperor penguins] will reduce dramatically.’ (geographer)
  • ‘One forecast suggests that the global population of emperors could crash by half by the end of this century.’ (reporter)

[10]  The first question is whether these were statements of fact to which the accuracy standard applies. The standard does not apply to statements which are distinguishable as comment, analysis or opinion.4 The following factors are relevant when considering whether the statements are distinguishable as comment, analysis or opinion:

  • the language used in the item
  • the type of programming and the role of the person speaking
  • the subject matter
  • whether evidence or proof is provided
  • whether the statements are attributed to someone.

[11]  Applying these factors here, we find the predictions reported in relation to the survival of the emperor penguin population were analysis and opinion, rather than statements of fact:

  • The extent to which the penguin population may reduce in the future is not a verifiable fact that can be proved right or wrong, but rather a matter of prediction.5 Predictions are by their nature opinions about possible future events, based on the analysis of available research and data.
  • The language used included terms such as ‘forecasts’, ‘predicts’ ‘suggests’, ‘we expect’ and ‘could’, indicating these were predictions based on current climate change data and research.
  • The first forecast statement was made by the geographer interviewed, based on his and others’ work concerning the Antarctic. The remainder were made by the reporter who offered high-level summaries of other researchers’ findings, saying: ‘the scientists say’, ‘the best climate models predict’, and ‘researchers say’. Statements that are attributed to someone or a source are more likely to be treated as opinions.6
  • The item acknowledged ‘one forecast suggests’, indicating the finding was not conclusive and other viewpoints or predictions may differ.
  • A reasonable viewer would likely interpret these as statements of opinion or analysis rather than statements of fact.

[12]  On the basis the accuracy standard does not apply, we do not uphold this part of the complaint.

Balance

[13]  A number of criteria must be satisfied before the requirement under the balance standard 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’.7

[14]  An issue of public importance is something that would have a ‘significant potential impact on, or be of concern to, members of the New Zealand public’.8 A controversial issue is one which has topical currency and excites conflicting opinion or about which there has been ongoing public debate.9

[15]  The focus of the 1 News item was reporting on the discovery of new active emperor penguin breeding sites, and the effects of climate change on the future of the emperor penguin population (because they breed on sea ice). The complainant’s concern is that predictions about climate change and its effects are based on ‘unproven science’ and therefore should not be reported on.

[16]  In past decisions, dating back to 2013, the Authority accepted the wider issue of global climate change, including related issues (for example, the risk of extinction due to climate change), amounted to a controversial issue of public importance about which there was ongoing debate.10

[17]  However, over time and with further research, the existence of climate change and its impacts, including the decline of sea ice and the effects this has on species that depend on the sea ice for survival, have come to be widely accepted internationally. For example in relation to the Antarctic:

  • ‘The warming of the Antarctic Peninsula is causing changes to the physical and living environment of Antarctica. The distribution of penguin colonies has changed as the sea ice conditions alter. Melting of perennial snow and ice covers has resulted in increased colonisation by plants. A long-term decline in the abundance of Antarctic krill in the SW Atlantic sector of the Southern Ocean may be associated with reduced sea ice cover.’11
  • ‘Loss of sea ice west of the Antarctic Peninsula has caused changes in algal growth. This loss of sea ice has also caused a shift from large to smaller species. Stocks of krill have declined significantly. In some areas Adélie penguin populations have declined due to reduced sea ice and prey species (on the northern Antarctic Peninsula)…’12
  • ‘Climate change and disappearing sea ice in the Southern Ocean are causing food shortages that could threaten Antarctic whales, seals and penguins…’13
  • ‘The rapid climate warming on the western Antarctic Peninsula has reduced sea-ice cover by around 40% in the last 30 years which impacts the success of the ‘krill nurseries’. Ice-dependent species, such as the Adélie, are being affected by this change. However, the less ice-dependent species, such as chinstraps, fare better where they can move into areas with less sea ice but with adequate breeding habitat and food supplies.’14

[18]  Overall we find the item did not amount to a discussion of a controversial issue, therefore the balance standard does not apply. We recognise some people maintain a different view on climate change, but the level of broad societal and scientific acceptance is such that we do not consider the issue of climate change remains ‘controversial’ for the purposes of this standard. The part of the item the complainant is concerned about simply reported the predictions of some scientists and researchers including ‘one forecast’ that the penguin population may gradually decline. The complainant has not explained what significant viewpoint he considers was missing or should have been included, only saying ‘predictions due to global warming based on still unproved science’ are ‘not news’ and should not be reported. In any case we consider any potential harm was mitigated through the language used, which clearly indicated this was only ‘one forecast’ and the concerns for penguins’ survival were attributed to these particular scientists’ views and analysis.

[19]  We therefore do not uphold the balance complaint.

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

 

Judge Bill Hastings

Chair

16 March 2021   

 

 
Appendix

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

1  Robbie Ancel’s complaint to TVNZ – 7 August 2020

2  TVNZ’s response to Mr Ancel – 2 September 2020

3  Mr Ancel’s referral to the Authority – 3 September 2020

4  TVNZ confirming no further comments – 25 September 2020


1 Standard 9 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice
2 Commentary: Accuracy, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
3 Standard 8 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice
4 Guideline 9a
5 Guidance: Accuracy – Distinguishing Fact and Analysis, Comment or Opinion, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 64
6 As above
7 Guideline 8a
8 Commentary: Balance, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
9 As above
10 See McMillan and Television New Zealand, Decision No. 2013-025, and more recently, Neate and Radio New Zealand Ltd, Decision No. 2019-074, Dewhurst and MediaWorks TV Ltd, Decision No. 2019-109
11 Discovering Antarctica “Impacts of Climate Change” < www.discoveringantarctica.org.uk>
12 British Antarctic Survey (1 December 2009) “First comprehensive review of the state of Antarctica’s climate – Antarctic Climate Change and the Environment” <www.bas.ac.uk>
13 Patricia Reaney “Antarctic warming killing off fish food” ABC Science (online ed, 4 November 2004)
14 British Antarctic Survey “Impacts on wildlife: Penguins” <www.bas.ac.uk>