02678-20 Walker v Daily Mail

Decision: Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 02678-20 Walker v Daily Mail

Summary of Complaint

1. Sarah Walker complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Mail breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) in an article headlined “Is this proof ‘life-saving’ ventilators are actually death traps?” published 18 April 2019.

2. The article reported on concerns about the use of ventilators to treat patients with Covid-19. It reported that a named American doctor “has watched over the beds of hundreds of coronavirus patients, and now believes they are dying because of the very treatment [ventilators] that is meant to save them”. The article reported that “After being rushed into hospital, [patients] are knocked out by sedatives delivered through a throat tube as a ventilator mechanically pumps their lungs”; that ventilators have been a “standard treatment for the deadly lung infection pneumonia”; and that, “in a frank YouTube video”, the named doctor is “heralding a re-think concerning the treatment of severe cases of Covid-19”. The article reported that “in particular…experts are now asking whether the best way of saving patients might be to saturate their blood with oxygen delivered through a mask without using a ventilator”. The article later stated that “Unlike pneumonia patients, kept on ventilators for a few days, Covid 19 sufferers are often left on them for weeks, even a month” and that “Older patients who survive also risk permanent brain disorders from being heavily sedated for such a long period”. Finally, it stated that “One of the distinctive symptoms of Covid-19 is the way a yellowy mucous gunk clogs the millions of tiny air sacs lining the lungs. This means however hard the ventilator pushes oxygen into the lungs, that oxygen cannot get through the mucous barrier and into the body…But if the medics try to fix the problem by turning up the pump volume, it leads to lung damage”.

3. The article also appeared online in a substantially similar format.

4. The complainant, a doctor, said that the headline -“Is this proof ‘life-saving’ ventilators are actually deathtraps?”- was misleading. She said it implied that ventilators were dangerous when in fact they are an important treatment and, in any event, it is the virus itself rather than the ventilation which would usually lead to death. She said that the claim that patients needing ventilation are “knocked out by sedatives delivered through a throat tube” was inaccurate as such sedatives are delivered intravenously, although she accepted that this claim was not significantly inaccurate. She said the claim that ventilators are “a standard treatment for the deadly lung infection pneumonia” was misleading. Whilst they are an established and accepted form of treatment for severe cases of pneumonia, most pneumonia patients do not require ventilation at all. She said the statement that the named doctor’s video “is heralding a re-think concerning the treatment of severe cases of Covid-19” was misleading. Whilst she accepted that there had been a “re-think” regarding the use of ventilators of the sort described by the article, she doubted whether this re-think was in any way because of this specific video. The complainant was concerned about the statement that “Unlike pneumonia patients, kept on ventilators for a few days, Covid 19 sufferers are often left on them for weeks, even a month”. She accepted that Covid-19 patients generally spend longer on ventilators but said that the length of time on a ventilator would usually vary from patient to patient. Regarding the claim that “One of the distinctive symptoms of Covid-19 is the way a yellowy mucous gunk clogs the millions of tiny air sacs lining the lungs”, she accepted that this was the case but said that this was also a symptom of pneumonia. The complaint said that the statement that “if the medics try to fix the problem [oxygen starvation caused by the mucus] by turning up the pump volume, it leads to lung damage”, was inaccurate. Whilst she accepted that barotrauma could result from increasing the pump volume, she said this was not always the case. Finally, she said that the statement that “Older patients who survive also risk permanent brain disorders from being heavily sedated for such a long period” was misleading. She accepted that she was not an expert on this particular subject and accepted the use of the word “risk” made this a fair point, but thought that it would usually be the virus rather than ventilation itself which would lead to hypoxia and permanent brain disorders. The complainant also said that the article was scaremongering and sensationalist. She finally said that it had breached Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) as the quantity of inaccuracies could compound the grief of the family and friends of those who have died of Covid-19 after receiving ventilation.

5. The publication did not accept it had breached the Code. It stated that the headline -“Is this proof ‘life-saving’ ventilators are actually deathtraps?”- was not a statement of fact that ventilators were death traps. Instead, it was simply a question which served to introduce the views of individuals mentioned by the article; views that the article made clear ran contrary to the medical establishment. It accepted that the claim that patients needing ventilation are “knocked out by sedatives delivered through a throat tube” was inaccurate as such sedatives are delivered intravenously. However, it did not accept this was significantly inaccurate. It did not accept that the claim that ventilators are “a standard treatment for the deadly lung infection pneumonia” was misleading, where they are an established and accepted form of treatment for severe cases of the illness. Similarly, it did not accept that the claim that the named doctor’s video “is heralding a re-think concerning the treatment of severe cases of Covid-19” was misleading. The use of the word “heralding” simply meant that the doctor’s video was a sign of the “re-think” the complainant accepted was underway within the medical profession, and was a reference to the doctor being one of the first in his sector to raise the subject openly. It did not mean that the video was instrumental in causing the “re-think” in the way the complainant had suggested. Regarding the claim that “Unlike pneumonia patients, kept on ventilators for a few days, Covid 19 sufferers are often left on them for weeks”, the publication said that medical evidence showed that Covid-19 sufferers generally spent a longer period on ventilators than pneumonia sufferers requiring ventilation. The publication did not accept that the claim that “if the medics try to fix the problem [oxygen starvation caused by the mucus] by turning up the pump volume, it leads to lung damage” was inaccurate. It said there was a clear risk of barotrauma when exposing delicate lung tissue to high pressure air. Regarding the claim “Older patients who survive also risk permanent brain disorders from being heavily sedated for such a long period”, the publication did not accept this was inaccurate. It said that medical evidence supported there being a “risk” of cognitive difficulties and pointed to comments from a prominent physician and a peer-reviewed article in a leading medical journal which discussed this risk. Finally, it said that Clause 4 was not applicable to the complaint. Clause 4 is designed to protect those directly involved in a story concerning grief or shock; whereas this article simply about the topic of ventilators generally rather than being about specific individuals affected by grief or shock.

6. The publication offered to amend sentences in the online article about ventilation being a “standard treatment for the deadly lung infection pneumonia” and the claim that sedatives were delivered through the throat. During the referral period it offered to correct the later claim, with the following wording being footnoted to the online article and appearing in print on page 2, in the usual corrections column.

“An article on April 18 about the use of ventilators on Covid-19 patients said that before treatment, patients are given sedatives ‘through a throat tube.’ In fact, the sedatives are delivered intravenously”

7. The complainant did not accept these offers which she said did not correct the headline, which she alleged implied that ventilators were “deathtraps”.

Relevant Code Provisions

8. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and –where appropriate– an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.

9. Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock)

In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.

Findings of the Committee

10. Both parties agreed that the claim that patients requiring ventilation “are knocked out by sedatives delivered through a throat tube” was inaccurate as such sedatives are delivered intravenously. Therefore, where the article claimed as fact that “sedatives [are] delivered through a throat tube”, it failed to take care not to publish inaccurate information. There was a breach of Clause 1(i).

11. The Committee considered that this failure to take care had meant that the article had incorrectly described part of the medical procedure -ventilation- that formed the focus of the article. In its view, this gave rise to a significant inaccuracy requiring correction. The correction offered by the publication on this point identified the inaccuracy and put the correct position on record. It was made promptly, before IPSO’s investigation, and with due prominence. There was no breach of Clause 1(ii).

12. The headline claim -“Is this proof ‘life-saving’ ventilators are actually deathtraps?”- was clearly presented as a question rather than as a factual claim that ventilators are “deathtraps”. The article made clear what the headline claim referred to, namely the views of named individuals mentioned by the article on the dangers of ventilation; views the article also made clear where “unorthodox” and “maverick”. There was no breach of Clause 1.

13. Where it was accepted that ventilation was an accepted and established treatment for severe pneumonia cases, it was not inaccurate to state that ventilators have been a “standard treatment for the deadly lung infection pneumonia”. There was no breach of Clause 1.

14. The complainant accepted that there was a “re-think” regarding the use of ventilators for severe Covid-19 cases as described by the article. It was not therefore misleading to state that the named doctor’s video was “heralding a re-think”. This did not mean that the named doctor was the cause of the “re-think”, only that he was part of and a sign of it, which the complainant did not dispute. There was no breach of Clause 1.

15. The claim that “Older patients who survive [ventilation] also risk permanent brain disorders from being heavily sedated for such a long period” was not inaccurate, where the publication had provided medical research showing a link between sedation and long-term cognitive difficulties. The complainant had also accepted the statement constituted a fair comment as it had used the word “risk”. There was no breach of Clause 1.

16. Where it was accepted that severe Covid-19 cases generally remain on ventilators for longer than severe pneumonia sufferers, it was not misleading to state “Unlike pneumonia patients, kept on ventilators for a few days, Covid 19 sufferers are often left on them for weeks, even a month”. Readers would be aware that the time spent on a ventilator may vary between individual patients. There was no breach of Clause 1.

17. The complainant stated it had been misleading to claim that “One of the distinctive symptoms of Covid-19 is the way a yellowy mucous gunk clogs the millions of tiny air sacs lining the lungs” whilst failing to mention this was also a symptom of severe pneumonia. Newspapers have the right to choose which pieces of information they publish, as long as this does not lead to a breach of the Code. In this case, failing to mention this was also a symptom of pneumonia did not render the article inaccurate where the focus was on Covid-19. There was no breach of Clause 1.

18. The claim that “if the medics try to fix the problem [oxygen starvation caused by the mucus] by turning up the pump volume, it leads to lung damage” was not inaccurate, where it was accepted that there was a risk of barotrauma in such instances. There was no breach of Clause 1.

19. Clause 4 generally relates to the sensitivity of the approaches journalists make to, and the information they publish about, individuals who have been bereaved or are in state of shock following a distressing event. The article -a general report on ventilators and concerns about their use in the fight against Covid-19- did not focus on or discuss a distressing event affecting a specific person. There was no breach of Clause 4.

20. Clause 1 requires publications to take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information, and to correct significantly inaccurate, misleading or distorted information. It does not relate to concerns that reporting is sensationalist and scaremongering, where this does not relate to a specific inaccuracy. The Preamble to the Editors’ Code makes clear that the press has the right to shock, to challenge and be partisan. There was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

21. The complaint was partially upheld under Clause 1(i).

Remedial Action Required

22. The correction which was offered put the correct position on record, and was offered promptly and with due prominence, and should now be published. The publication subsequently added the word “usually” to the last sentence of their correction to clarify the true position, namely that sedatives, whilst usually delivered intravenously, may in exceptional circumstances be delivered orally.

Independent Complaints Reviewer

23. The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.

 

Date complaint received: 19/4/2020

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 18/11/2020

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