00506-15 Cottrill v mirror.co.uk

Decision: No breach - after investigation

·   Decision of the Complaints Committee 00506-15 Cottrill v mirror.co.uk 

Summary of complaint 

1. Abigail Cottrill complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation mirror.co.uk had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “E-cigarette health scare erupts as officials highlight “serious” cancer risk of vaping”, published on 29 January 2015. 

2. The article reported that the director of the California Department of Public Health had produced a report which found that electronic cigarettes are a “community health threat”, and advised that Californians avoid the use of e-cigarettes and that they be kept away from children. The article also referenced research published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), which it said “claimed e-cigs could be more dangerous than smoking”. It reproduced a message published on social media by the NEJM which said “Chemical analysis of e-cigs’ vapour show high levels of formaldehyde. Authors project higher cancer risk than smoking”. 

3. The complainant was concerned that the article presented the claims made by the director of the California Department of Public Health as fact. She was also concerned that the article had misrepresented the facts of the scientific research published by the NEJM. She said that the research had studied just one chemical, and the author himself had made clear publicly that he had not come to the conclusions reported in the article. The complainant had provided a link to an article in which one of the study’s authors reportedly disagreed with the tweet issued by the NEJM. 

4. The complainant was concerned that the article had not presented any scientific counterarguments. She said that the findings had been widely criticised prior to the publication of the article, and that it had been noted that the research had considered vaping at a higher voltage than would be used by consumers. The complainant suggested that as a resolution to her complaint, the newspaper should agree to publish an article about a scientific paper which was soon to be published. 

5. The newspaper did not accept that the article was inaccurate or significantly misleading. While it accepted that the original article had not included any counter-arguments, it said that the article had clearly attributed the remarks about the safety or otherwise of electronic cigarettes. Nonetheless, the newspaper subsequently amended the article to reflect a more balanced view of the research by including a counter-claim. It also offered to append a footnote which would make clear that the earlier version of the article had been amended to include responses to the claims made. It said that while it would consider the research cited by the complainant, it could not guarantee to publish an article about the material. 

Relevant Code Provisions 

6. Clause 1 (Accuracy) 

i) The press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures. 

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published. 

iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. 

Findings of the Committee 

7. The article had focused on claims made by the director of the California Department of Public Health about the health risks associated with electronic cigarettes. The claims had been attributed to the director of the California Department of Public Health, and it was clear that they represented his personal view on the topic, rather than definitive conclusions which would be accepted by the scientific community as a whole. The article had not failed to distinguish comment and conjecture from fact. As the complainant had not disputed that the director of the California Department of Public Health had made the claims attributed to him, the reporting of his comments did not raise a breach of Clause 1. 

8. The article had explained that the research had concerned the production of formaldehyde, and that it had found that electronic cigarettes “could potentially” produce significantly more formaldehyde than normal cigarettes. The study - published as a letter to the editor of the journal - found “…long-term vaping is associated with an incremental lifetime cancer risk of 4.2×10−3. This risk is 5 times as high…or even 15 times as high… as the risk associated with long-term smoking. In addition, formaldehyde-releasing agents may deposit more efficiently in the respiratory tract than gaseous formaldehyde, and so they could carry a higher slope factor for cancer.”  While the Committee noted the view that electronic cigarettes are not usually smoked at a voltage high enough to cause formaldehyde, it was not inaccurate to report that the study had found that electronic cigarettes could have this affect. The newspaper had been entitled to report the findings of the study and had not been obliged to independently evaluate the methodology employed by the researchers. There was no breach of the Code. 

9. The newspaper had been entitled to report the tweet which had been issued by the NEJM, including its characterisation of the study. Although one of the authors of the study had said that he did not share the opinion of the NEJM about the implications of the study, the Committee was satisfied that the article had not been significantly inaccurate. It also noted that it had not received a complaint about the coverage from anyone directly associated with the study. 

10. The terms of Clause 1 do not include a requirement of impartiality. The newspaper had been entitled to report the findings of studies which it considered newsworthy. The Committee welcomed nonetheless the newspaper’s offer to amend the online article and publish a footnote. 

Conclusions 

11. The complaint was not upheld. 

Remedial Action Required 

N/A 

Date complaint received: 02/02/2015

Date decision issued: 06/07/2015

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