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Watson and Television New Zealand Ltd - 2020-151 (20 April 2021)

Members
  • Judge Bill Hastings (Chair)
  • Leigh Pearson
  • Paula Rose QSO
  • Susie Staley MNZM
Dated
Complainant
  • Dr Paul Watson
Number
2020-151
Programme
1 News
Channel/Station
TV One

Summary  

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

The Authority has not upheld a complaint about an item on 1 News, which reported on the results of a Colmar Brunton poll concerning party support and leader popularity, in comparison to a previous poll, without presenting the margin of error. The complaint alleged the broadcaster misrepresented the significance of the change in results by excluding the margin of error. The Authority found that polling is a speculative exercise and the public understands this, and the broadcast was unlikely to mislead.

Not Upheld: Accuracy


The broadcast

[1]  During an item on 1 News, on 28 September 2020, host Wendy Petrie and reporter Jessica Mutch McKay presented the results of a Colmar Brunton poll concerning party support and leader popularity, in comparison to a previous poll, without reference to the margin of error:

Ms Petrie:                    Less than three weeks from Election Day and Labour will need help from the Greens to form a government, according to our latest 1 News Colmar Brunton poll. The exclusive results show a boost for National, Act and the Greens, compared to our poll taken last week, just before the first 1 News Leaders Debate…

Ms Mutch McKay:      This is the first poll that takes into account the 1 News Leaders Debate. We polled from Wednesday until last night and here are the numbers. Labour is on 47 dropping 1, from our poll last week. National is up 2, sitting on 33. Act continues its upward rise, up 1 to 8. The Greens get a boost as well, now sitting on 7. And it keeps getting worse for New Zealand First, dipping to 1, and on these numbers it wouldn’t be back to Parliament.

Let’s look at some of the other parties. The New Conservatives, the Opportunities Party, the Māori Party, and Advance New Zealand are all sitting on just 1.1

Time to look at the house now and see how it’s shaping up, translating our numbers to seats in Parliament. And on these numbers Labour can’t quite govern alone, with 59 red seats over here, remember you need 61 to form a government. So it would need the 8 seats from the Greens. National would bring in 43 seats in blue there, add in Act’s 10 seats in yellow, yes that’s right 10 MPs, and it’s still not enough to form a government.

The complaint

[2]  Dr Paul Watson complained the broadcast breached the accuracy standard for not presenting the margin of error:

  • ‘The [broadcast misled] viewers by not telling viewers about the [poll’s] margin of error.’
  • ‘The broadcast implied the changes were significantly different from other recent polls.’
  • ‘Without knowing what the [poll’s] margin of error is it is impossible for the viewers to know if the changes between polls are meaningful or just the normal variation you would expect from random sampling of the population.’
  • ‘It is almost certain all the changes seen for the Green, Act, National and Labour parties in this poll are just the result of the [poll’s] margin of error. So the poll results are not significantly different from the previous poll. This is not the story told in the coverage of the poll in fact there was no mention of the margin for errors.’

The broadcaster’s response

[3]  TVNZ did not uphold Dr Watson’s complaint:

  • ‘The Committee understands [the] point that this information would be good to have as part of the discussion of the poll, however in terms of the standard we do not agree that the discussion is misleading to viewers.’
  • ‘We note that the percentage changes are made very clear to viewers in the report and it is clear that in some cases this percentage change is just 1%.’
  • ‘The poll constitutes a snapshot of what may happen, given the results, at a particular point in time and this is widely understood to be subject to change. It is legitimate to discuss the information in the snapshot view provided by the poll, and what it might mean in terms of how the government might form.’
  • ‘[T]he margin of error information was made available by 1 News to those viewers who wished to have a more in-depth view of the poll[;] this information is not provided on air due to time constrictions.’

The standard

[4]  The accuracy standard2 protects the public from being significantly misinformed.3 It 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.

Our findings

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

[6]  The Authority’s Election Complaints Fast-Track Process contemplates fast-tracking of complaints about ‘programmes that relate to election or referenda matters that may influence a vote’.4 As this complaint was only referred to us after the 2020 General Election, it was not eligible for fast-tracking and has been dealt with under our standard procedures.

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

Accuracy

[8]  The audience may be misinformed in two ways: by incorrect statements of fact within the programme; and/or by being misled by the programme.

[9]  The accuracy requirement does not apply to statements which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion, rather than statements of fact.5 Where statements of fact are at issue, the standard is concerned only with material inaccuracy. Technical or unimportant points unlikely to significantly affect the audience’s understanding of the programme as a whole are not material.6

[10]  Being ‘misled’ is defined as being given ‘a wrong idea or impression of the facts’.7 Programmes may be misleading by omission, or as a result of the way dialogue and images have been edited together.8

[11]  The figures reported in this broadcast were an accurate representation of the poll results collected, which presented the public with an idea of where party support and leader popularity stood at that time.

[12]  The public understands that poll results are based on surveys of a sample population, and viewers generally do not expect broadcasters to report on the statistical possibilities or limitations that underpin their survey methods and projections. Viewers understand that polls are a rough tool for gauging public opinion, and are unlikely to interpret poll results as definitive.

[13]  Ideally, polls would be reported with the margin of error as it assists viewers to interpret the value of the poll itself. The margin of error could have been included on-screen, within time constraints. However, even without such information, the broadcast was unlikely to mislead viewers.

[14]  Finally, Ms Mutch McKay’s statements about the significance of the change in poll results were clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion, to which the accuracy requirement does not apply.

[15]  Accordingly, we do not uphold this complaint.

For the above reasons the Authority does not uphold the complaint.
 

Signed for and on behalf of the Authority

  

Judge Bill Hastings

Chair

20 April 2021    

 


Appendix

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

1  Paul Watson’s formal complaint – 4 October 2020

2  TVNZ’s response to the complaint – 30 October 2020

3  Dr Watson’s referral to the Authority – 31 October 2020

4  TVNZ’s confirmation of no further comment – 20 November 2020


1 On-screen infographics showing each party’s polling numbers as percentages were presented as the above numbers were mentioned by Ms Mutch McKay.
2 Standard 9 of the Free-to-Air Television Code of Broadcasting Practice
3 Commentary: Accuracy, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
4 Broadcasting Standards Authority “Fast track complaints process for election related content” <www.bsa.govt.nz>
5 Guideline 9a
6 Guideline 9b
7 Commentary: Accuracy, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 18
8 Commentary: Accuracy, Broadcasting Standards in New Zealand Codebook, page 19