The Media Council has strongly criticised a Newshub website article Nutritionist offers top five tips for boosting the health of toddlers published on March 16, 2021, upholding a complaint that it breached the Principles relating to Conflicts of Interest and Balance.
The complaint noted that the story promoted the milk powder company, Haven, despite it being presented as an independent news story about child health and Newshub had failed to acknowledge that it has a commercial relationship with Haven. The website and AM Show run content sponsored by Haven.
Newshub based the story on an interview with a single nutritionist paid by Haven, rather than one or more independent nutritionists, less than a week after airing a segment sponsored by the company on the AM Show.
The article mentioned Haven three times and, incredibly, even linked to the company's website. The version of the article supplied by the complainant featured a photo of a mother and child with a can of Haven toddler formula prominently featured.
Newshub responded to the initial complaint making minor changes to the story and removing the link to the Haven website. They denied there was any conflict as the editor was not aware of the sponsored content on the AM show and no gifts, sponsorship or financial inducement was involved.
Subsequently it was established that the Newshub story was illustrated with a different photo. The version of the story submitted to the Council initially was a mock-up of the original story, where the company Zuru, owners of brand Haven, had doctored the story and inserted its publicity shot into the article when posting it to Facebook.
While the Council has no jurisdiction over advertising industries, it’s worrying that any organisation would doctor a news story, while leaving the headline, by-line and all other display elements in place. While news organisations cannot have eyes everywhere, this is a warning as to the damage others can do to their editorial content and in their name, when those others look to trade off the credibility of independent news media.
Newshub insisted the article was "editorial content", not mislabelled advertorial. If so, it was extremely poor editorial content. It presented in its initial form entirely as a piece of advertorial. In the original story one particular brand featured, was mentioned three times and the company linked to when the story was about toddler health and had no reason to mention any brand at all.
Single source stories, especially those involving health recommendations, should almost always be a red flag for journalists. Any reporting offering advice on important issues, such as children’s health, will benefit from a range of views, scepticism and thorough investigation. Using a single source that has a commercial relationship with Newshub is especially troubling.
Media Council takes complaints such as this very seriously because the independence of journalism from conflicts of interest and commercial influence is a bedrock issue for the profession.
In upholding the complaint the Media Council noted the line between editorial and advertising, advertorials or sponsored content is a critical one for the news media, especially at a time when media companies are under significant commercial pressures and public trust in independent and accurate news is in jeopardy.
The full Media Council ruling is at www.mediacouncil.org.nz