BSA Decisions Ngā Whakatau a te Mana Whanonga Kaipāho

All BSA's decisions on complaints 1990-present

McDonald and Discovery NZ Ltd - 2020-084 (28 January 2021)

Members
  • Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Paula Rose QSO
  • Susie Staley MNZM
Dated
Complainant
  • Donald McDonald
Number
2020-084
Programme
Newshub
Broadcaster
Discovery NZ Ltd
Channel/Station
Three

Summary

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

The Authority has not upheld a complaint that statistics given in a news item about a drug used to successfully treat some COVID-19 patients were inaccurate. The statistics were drawn from a press release from the Chief Investigators of the medical trial and were materially accurate and not misleading.

Not Upheld: Accuracy


The broadcast

[1]  An item on Newshub Live at 6pm on 17 June 2020 (channel Three) reported on a medical trial in the United Kingdom testing the use of drugs already available in hospital pharmacies to treat COVID-19.

[2]  The item included statistics on the effectiveness of the drug dexamethasone in treating patients with COVID-19 (with an accompanying graphic):

  • “There’s been a breakthrough in the fight against coronavirus that could save hundreds of thousands of lives.” (reporter)
  • “If we’d known this four or five months ago, we would have saved tens of thousands of lives.” (Oxford University Professor)
  • “The drug only benefits higher-risk patients needing respiratory help in hospital. For those needing oxygen alone, the risk of death is cut from 25 to 20 per cent. That means one in 25 deaths is prevented. But for patients on ventilators, the risk is cut more, from 41 per cent to 28 per cent. That’s one in eight deaths prevented.” (reporter)

The complaint

[3]  Donald McDonald complained the Newshub report breached the accuracy standard as the reporter misinterpreted the statistics and misrepresented the results of the drug trial:

  • The Oxford University Professor said ‘tens of thousands of lives’ could have been saved, but Newshub multiplied ‘this figure by ten’, saying ‘hundreds of thousands’.
  • Regarding patients on ventilators, the reduction from 41% patient deaths to 28% was ‘nearly one third’ of a reduction in the number of deaths, not one in eight as reported.
  • Regarding patients on oxygen alone, the reduction from 25% to 20% was ‘one in five’, not one in 25.
  • These statistics were ‘the central matter of the story’ and were ‘mucked up’.

The broadcaster’s response

[4]  MediaWorks did not uphold Mr McDonald’s complaint, saying the statistics reported in the item were sourced directly from a press release issued by the Chief Investigators in the drug trial.1 It stated:

In the item, an Oxford University Professor… comments that the drug would have saved tens of thousands of lives – his comment is in relation to the United Kingdom. Introducing the story, the Newshub presenter said that the discovery could save hundreds of thousands of lives – this was intended to mean worldwide rather than just the United Kingdom.

The standard

[5]  The accuracy standard2 states broadcasters should make reasonable efforts to ensure news, current affairs and factual programming is accurate in relation to all material points of fact, and does not mislead. The standard protects audiences from receiving misinformation and being misled.

Our analysis

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

[7]  Our task is to weigh the value of the programme, in terms of the right to freedom of expression and the public interest in it, against the level of actual or potential harm caused. The harm alleged is the audience would be misled as to the results of the drug trial and the efficacy of dexamethasone.

[8]  We found the statistics as presented by Newshub were materially accurate and would not have misled viewers, for the following reasons:

  • The statistics were taken from a press release issued by the Chief Investigators in the drug trial. It was reasonable for the broadcaster to rely on this as an authoritative source.
  • The reference to ‘one in eight’ and ‘one in 25’ patient deaths being prevented was how many deaths in all patients on ventilators, or oxygen alone, respectively, were prevented. This reference came directly from the press release.
  • The statistics provided by the complainant were the fraction of deaths prevented out of total deaths, not total patients. This is different to what was reported in the broadcast and press release.
  • he distinction between the Oxford Professor’s comment that the discovery ‘would have saved tens of thousands of lives’ and the reporter’s comment the discovery ‘could save hundreds of thousands of lives’ could be referring to either lives saved worldwide, or lives saved in the future compared to lives saved prior to testing the drug. Either way, the comment was not material to the focus of the broadcast, which was on the success of the trial for patients with acute COVID-19 symptoms.

[9]  We therefore do not uphold the complaint as we have not found actual or potential harm under the accuracy standard that justifies regulatory intervention or restricting freedom of expression.

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

  

Judge Bill Hastings

Chair

28 January 2021

 

 

Appendix

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

1  Donald McDonald’s complaint to MediaWorks – 17 June 2020

2  MediaWorks’ response to the complaint – 17 July 2020

3  Mr McDonald’s referral to the Authority – 26 July 2020

4  MediaWorks’ confirmation of no further comments – 10 September 2020


1 RECOVERY press release, “Low-cost dexamethasone reduces death by up to one third in hospitalised patients with severe respiratory complications of COVID-19” (16 June 2020) <www.recoverytrial.net>
2 Standard 9 of the Free-to-Air Television Code