20 March 2020
A landmark ruling by the appeal committee of the Press Council has clarified the obligations of science journalists in South Africa, with immediate implications for coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The ruling arose from an article GroundUp published in March 2019, Quack claims about oxygen treatment are dangerous. The article, clearly categorised at the top as science, described how some companies are making unsubstantiated medical claims about hyperbaric oxygen therapy. This has legitimate purposes – like treating scuba divers who get the bends. But quack companies offer it as a treatment for cancer, autism and much else. Our report named a company making such spurious claims.
The company’s manager lodged a complaint with the press ombud. He argued his company should have been contacted for its view of the science. He also argued that GroundUp’s article was inaccurate, even though it was accepted during the proceedings that we accurately reported the claims and pricing information on his company’s website.
In our response, GroundUp argued that the article included the views of three experts on the subject of hyperbaric oxygen therapy. We said we had accurately quoted the company’s website – and since the company has no recognised expertise on hyperbaric oxygen therapy, it was unnecessary to seek its comment on the subject.
We also argued that science reporting should be treated differently to news reporting, and so it was unnecessary to seek the views of a company making inaccurate claims.
The ombud did not find that the article was inaccurate. “On the issue of inaccuracy … GroundUp consulted a number of scientific experts on hyperbaric oxygen therapy and … this part of the complaint is dismissed,” she said.
But though she appeared to accept our argument that the article was a science article and that we were entitled to give space solely to the views of experts, she found that, since we had not asked the company for its views, we should not have singled it out by naming it.
She ruled that, under the Press Code, “GroundUp should not have mentioned the company without approaching it for comment”. She ordered us to apologise to the company for mentioning its name. She wrote that the article “would have been just as educative without singling out one company”. She referred in particular to Clause 1.8 of the code. This states:
“The media shall seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication …”
We appealed against her ruling for many reasons. Our main arguments were:
Section 1.8 of the Press Code applies to “Gathering and reporting of news”. Science reporting is not subject to this clause.
We accurately reported what was on the complainant’s website, which, simply because it’s a website, is already in the public domain. There was no need to ask the company to comment on its own public comment.
There is no provision in the Press Code against singling companies out.
The appeal was argued in Johannesburg on 10 March, and the panel delivered its ruling eight days later. It ruled that since the ombud had found that this was a science (as opposed to news) article, it was not subject to Clause 1.8. GroundUp therefore did not need to seek the views of the company. The complaint was dismissed. GroundUp does not have to apologise.
There is a long-running debate about balance in science reporting. Must publications give weight to the views of AIDS denialists, climate change denialists, flat-earthers, creationists or other discredited views on science? Or to hucksters making a quick buck on false claims? Our position, as with many reputable publications worldwide, is emphatically No. We do not believe in false balance. In fact, almost since GroundUp’s started, the About section of our website has stated something like this:
“GroundUp tries not to give a platform to pseudoscience (such as AIDS denialism or climate change denialism) … even when providing the right to reply or in the comments and letters sections.”
Our reading of the appeal committee ruling is that our vision of how science reporting should be done is consistent with the press code. Our report on hyperbaric oxygen therapy will be a template for our future reports on quackery.
Already dubious claims are being made on the Internet to sell products to test or treat Covid-19. We consider this dangerous and we will do our best to expose those companies.