Decision of the Complaints Committee 19601-17 Goodson v Telegraph.co.uk
Summary of complaint
1. Martin Goodson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Telegraph.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Fake news! How the BBC and Blue Planet got it wrong, yet again, about walruses and climate change”, published on 4 November 2017.
2. The article
reported on claims made in the BBC’s Blue Planet series that Arctic species
were being seriously affected by global warming as a result of sea ice melting.
The author argued against these claims, stating “far from Arctic ice vanishing,
there has been no further downward trend in the extent of its summer melting
since 2006. Its lowest point this September was higher than in seven of the
past 11 years”. The article also argued that “far from walruses being
‘seriously affected’, an exhaustive survey by the US Fish and Wildlife Service
has found that there are so many more of them than there were 30 years ago that
last month it decided not to list Pacific walruses on its endangered species
3. The complainant said that it was misleading for the newspaper to focus only on the last 11 years of data, when there was clear evidence of a long-term downward trend in sea ice extent since records began. He said the publication had “cherry-picked” data to support its argument regarding sea ice. He said that it was deceptive to use 2006 as a starting point for determining a trend, as this was already a historic low point in the data, and that selecting an arbitrary starting point for a trend in this way was a means of manipulating the data to support a particular argument. He also argued that the data provided by the publication supported the view that the downward trend in sea ice extent had continued past 2006, with the graphs showing clear downward trends extending beyond this year. He also said that, had any month other than September been chosen in relation to the claim that the “lowest point this September was higher than in seven of the past 11 years”, the lowest point of ice extent this year would have been higher than that for only two of the last 11 years on average. The complainant also argued that the publication had misrepresented the available data with respect to walrus population figures. He said that the data on which the article had based the claim that “there are so many more of them than there were 30 years ago” was explicitly caveated with the disclaimer that “comparisons of estimates across years are not appropriate due to differences in methods”. He therefore argued that the data did not support the claim that there were more walruses than 30 years ago.
4. The publication said that the article had presented the data on sea ice extent accurately. It said that trend lines on data were to some degree subjective, and dependent on the starting point chosen. It said that, whilst it was true that the data for September showed a decline from 1979 to 2006/7, thereafter the trend in sea ice extent was broadly flat. It said that the article had focused on the period since 2006 as this represented the last 10 years of data, and that the author had reported the trend for this period accurately. The publication also provided data to support its view that the “lowest point this September was higher than in seven of the past 11 years”. With respect to the issue of the walrus population, the publication argued that the data it provided showed a clear and significant increase since the 1980s. It acknowledged that the data was imperfect, but argued that it had presented it correctly by contrasting it with the BBC’s assertion that walruses had been “seriously affected” by climate change, which it said was inaccurate in the light of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s press release stating that walrus’ survival and reproduction rates were higher than in the 1980s. Despite this, the publication offered to issue the following clarification to the article:
“A 5 Nov article reported a US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) finding that there are "many more" walruses than 30 years ago. Although FWS estimates of walrus numbers were higher in 2014 than in the 1980s, population trend estimates are questionable given the paucity of the data and differing methods of collection. We are happy to make this clear.”
Relevant Code provisions
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.
iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
v) A publication must report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party, unless an agreed settlement states otherwise, or an agreed statement is published.
Findings of the Committee
5. The article was a comment piece which cast doubt on the BBC’s claims regarding the dramatic effects of climate change, and was not a scientific appraisal of all the available data with respect to the points raised. The Committee noted that the trends found within sets of data depend upon the start and end points chosen, and newspaper are entitled to make appropriate choices with respect to this. However, using data selectively may represent a breach of the Code, where it gives a grossly misleading impression of the status of any claims made in an article. The Committee therefore considered whether, with respect to the time periods the article specifically stated, the publication had accurately reported the available data, in the context of the claims the data was used to support.
6. The publication had provided data which showed that there had been only a limited decline in September sea ice extent since 2006, and it was clear that this was the time period and month the article specifically referenced. There were grounds for selecting the September data for publication, where this month appeared to represent the lowest annual sea ice extent, and while a strict scientific methodology might warn against such selection, this was not a scientific appraisal. Where the article made a specific claim, which it was able to support with the available data, it was not significantly misleading for the article to report that there had been “no further downward trend in the extent of summer melting since 2006”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
7. The article also challenged the view that walruses were being “seriously affected” by climate change, arguing that because there were “so many more of them than 30 years ago”, they had been removed from the endangered species list. The newspaper was correct to report that the Pacific walrus had been removed from the endangered species list by the US Fish & Wildlife Service. It was also able to provide data which gave estimates of the walrus population at different points in the last 40 years. While this data had been strongly caveated with respect to the making of historical comparisons, where the estimate provided for 2014 was higher than the estimate provided for 1985, and where the USFWS had made clear that walrus reproduction and survival rates were higher than in the 1970s, the Committee did not consider that the publication had failed to take care over the accuracy of its claims, in breach of Clause 1 (i). Because the table was so strongly caveated, the data was not conclusive. However, where the newspaper had correctly reported that Pacific walruses were no longer considered endangered, and in the context of a comment piece seeking to counter claims about the effect of climate change on the species, the Committee did not consider that stating that “there are so many more of them than there were 30 years ago” represented a significant inaccuracy such as would require correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). There was no breach of the Clause on this point. However, the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer of correction, and noted that publications should attach significant importance to the accurate interpretation of publicly-available data.
8. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 06/11/2017
Date decision issued: 19/02/2018
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