Ruling

00165-15 Smeeton v The Daily Telegraph

    • Date complaint received

      26th March 2015

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 00165-15 Smeeton v The Daily Telegraph

Summary of complaint 

1. George Smeeton complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation on behalf of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit that The Daily Telegraph had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Living close to wind farms could cause hearing damage”, published online on 1 October 2014 and an article headlined “Living near a wind farm could make you deaf, warn scientists”, published in the print edition on 1 October 2014.

2. The article under complaint reported on a scientific paper which had been published in the journal “Royal Society Open Science”. It reported that “living near to wind farms may lead to severe hearing damage or even deafness, according to research which warns of the possible dangers posed by low frequency noise”. It went on to describe the experiment, which had measured the effects of an exposure to low frequency noise on the inner ear of human subjects. A news item on the Royal Society’s website stated that “the [research] team say the results could have repercussions in assessments of risk potential of exposure to low frequency sounds, for example those produced by wind turbines, block-type thermal power stations, and air-conditioning systems”.

3. The complainant said that the article’s claims about the implications of the research in relation to wind turbines were inaccurate. The researchers had used levels of noise which were much louder than would be experienced near a wind turbine under planning laws. He noted that the research paper did not mention either deafness or wind turbines. The complainant referred to a blog post on the website Carbonbrief.org and a press release from the organisation RenewableUK in which Dr Drexl, one of the authors of the research, was reported as saying that his work did not support the claim that living near wind turbines may cause hearing impairment, and that this claim was “misleading and an over-interpretation of our results”. He went on to say that “there’s a very loose relationship between our work and wind turbines”, and that “we don’t know what happens if you are exposed [to low frequency sound] for longer periods of time, [for example] if you live next to a wind turbine and listen to these sounds for months or years” The complainant said that the Royal Society news item did not support the conjecture in the article.

4. The newspaper denied that the article had claimed as fact that wind turbines can cause deafness. Rather, it made a conjectural link between the findings of the research and the possible consequences of long-term exposure to noise from turbines. The article reported Dr Drexl’s comments that the results of the experiment “could be interpreted as a change of the mechanisms in the inner ear, produced by the low frequency sounds. This could be the first indication of a damaging process”. In addition, it included the comments by Dr Drexl about the uncertain effects of exposure over long periods of time, as quoted above, and his comment that the study “might help to explain some of the symptoms that people who live near wind turbines report, such as sleep disturbance, hearing problems and high blood pressure”. It noted that the Royal Society’s news article had explicitly suggested a potential link between the research and wind turbines.

5. The newspaper agreed with the complainant that the research did not use noise from wind turbines, but pointed out that part of the low frequency noise used in the experiment was part of the spectrum of frequency that wind turbines produce. The newspaper said that it was therefore reasonable to suggest that the noise produced by wind turbines might have a similar effect on the human ear as the low frequency noise used in the experiment. Nevertheless, the newspaper accepted that the article could have included more information about the noise levels used in the experiment. It has amended and published a footnote on the online article to explain that the experiment exposed the test subjects to low frequency sound significantly higher than the level of sound permitted by turbine planning law. A similar clarification was published in the corrections and clarifications column of the print edition of the newspaper. The newspaper also offered to amend the online article to make clear that the claim that living close to wind farms may lead to hearing damage had been suggested by a study, which had warned of the possible dangers posed by low frequency noise.

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. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance.

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

Findings of the Committee

7. The Committee recognised that newspapers are entitled to report on scientific research in a manner which places it in a broader context, and discusses its possible implications, so long as it does not breach the Code. In this context, particular regard should be given to the terms of Clause 1 (iii).

8. In providing the details of the experiment, and reporting the comments of Dr Drexl, the article had made clear the basis and the nature of the link made between the research and the potential effects of living near wind turbines. In addition, the Committee noted that the article used the words “could”, and “may”, to identify the claim about wind farms as a conjecture. In these circumstances, the claim that living near a wind farm could have an affect your hearing, was clearly distinguished as conjecture, rather than a claim of fact. There was no breach of Clause 1 (iii).

9. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s concern that the research did not provide grounds for making this conjecture. Whilst it noted his position that the sound used in the experiment was louder than the sound emitted by wind turbines under planning law, the Committee noted that the conclusions of the research paper concerned low frequency sounds in general, rather than the effects of the low frequency sounds at the particular volume used in the experiment.  Nevertheless, it welcomed the action taken by the newspaper to clarify the parameters of the experiment.

10. The Committee noted that the article contained quotations from Dr Drexl in which he had made a link between his research and possible hearing loss caused by living near wind farms. It further noted that in the Royal Society news item, the researchers had been quoted as observing that their findings could have repercussions for the assessment of the risks posed by sources of low frequency sounds, such as wind turbines. The article provided a description of the experiment concerned, and the results it produced, which made clear the basis of the conjecture. In these circumstances, the Committee considered that reporting a conjectural link between the research and possible hearing damage from living near wind farms did not demonstrate a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, and the article was not significantly misleading.

Conclusions

11. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

N/A

Date complaint received: 08/01/2015

Date decision issued: 26/03/2015