New Zealand Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal
New Zealand Skeptics

Media Eye

We all rely on the media for news and information, and would hope that some critical thinking and informed comment goes in to the stories we see. This is particularly important in areas that affect us, whether in terms of individual welfare or national public policy.

This section aims to monitor media reporting, highlighting both the good and the bad, in areas that are of interest to the NZ Skeptics. It also provides information and resources to help understand the background, history and relevant context of such stories, especially those that come round again and again and again.

We invite anyone to send us clippings or URLs of New Zealand-based print or broadcast media material that you think should be brought to greater attention, whether examples of shoddy journalism or excellent reporting. Send your information and comments to media@skeptics.org.nz.

For Reporters

If you are covering a media story with a paranormal or pseudo-science focus, you are welcome to contact the NZ Skeptics for comment at media@skeptics.org.nz. We can provide information, quotes, sidebars or a sanity check.

 


Everyone Take a Bow -- 2011 Bent Spoon Award from NZ Skeptics

The NZ Skeptics have awarded their annual prize for journalistic gullibility to all those media outlets and personalities who took Ken Ring's earthquake prediction claims at face value, thereby misinforming the public and contributing to 50,000 people leaving Christchurch with all the inconvenience, cost and emotional harm that that caused.

"We believe that it is the business of the professional media to ask pertinent questions on behalf of the public when presenting material as factual. We even have broadcasting standards which call for accurate reporting. Many, many media outlets and journalists failed the basic standards of their profession in failing to ask "where is the evidence?" in the face of Ken Ring's claims to predict earthquakes. They did us all a disservice," says Skeptics media commentator Vicki Hyde.

The group Bent Spoon award is an unusual one for the NZ Skeptics, but they felt that so little was asked by so many that it had to be a broader award this year. That said, the organisation did single out some reporters and commentators whom they felt had made particularly poor journalistic efforts in this area. They include:

Marcus Lush, for giving great and unquestioning publicity for Ring's claims that Christchurch would have a major earthquake -- "one for the history books" -- on March 20th, and continuing to support Ring's promotion as an earthquake predictor and weather forecaster.
Lush on RadioLive
Lush on RadioLive 2

Closeup's Mark Sainsbury for giving Ring another platform to air his ideas with very little in-depth critique
Ken Ring Breaks His Silence, July 12, 2011

"The best thing about Ken's failure on March 20 was his long silence afterwards. Yet here he is back on what is supposed to be credible current affairs show with more vague pronouncements and self-justifications. Surely Closeup had another Kate-and-William clip they could have played instead to maintain their level of journalistic quality."

The Herald on Sunday's Chloe Johnson, described as having provided uncritical publicity for Ring which continued long after his failures had been well and truly demonstrated
Moon Man just wants a chance to help people, June 26 2011

"It's been sad to see the Herald name devalued by the tabloid approach of the Herald on Sunday, especially when the lower-quality spin-off can sometimes do good stuff such as its hard-hitting editorial headlined "Charlatan Ring merits contempt"." Charlatan Ring merits contempt(March 20, 2011)

Brian Edwards, described by one commentator as providing "banal and rigourless equivocations", along the lines of such gems as "the evidence that the moon has some contributory influence on earthquakes seems slight...however, it is not impossible that it does".

"We've seen Edwards cogently skewer sloppy thinking in the past, so it was surprising to see just how wishy-washy he was in this particular case."

And what of the notorious John Campbell interview where the television interviewer lost his cool and boosted sympathy for Ring by shouting him down?

The NZ Skeptics say that that has given them the unusual situation of seeing nominations come in to give Campbell both the Bent Spoon and the society's Bravo Award for critical thinking.

"We appreciate what John was trying to do -- introduce a little evidence and call into question some very dubious claims -- but we knew he'd blown it as soon as he started to talk over the top of Ken."

Bravo Awards

The NZ Skeptics also applaud critical thinking with a number of Bravo Awards each year. This year's recipients are:

Janna Sherman of the the Greymouth Star for her item "Sceptics revel in Hokitika 'earthquake' non-event" (March 14 2011)

Ken Ring predicted an Alpine Fault rupture and/or an extreme weather event which would require Civil Defense to prepare for gales and heavy rain at the Hokitika Wildfoods Festival in March. As Sherman's report noted:

"The 22nd annual Wildfoods Festival on Saturday was held under sunny skies, with temperatures climbing over 20degC."

"In science, a lack of evidence or a failed prediction can tell us a lot; in the media, we rarely see any stories about a non-event. That's why it was great to see Sherman and the Star cover Ken's failure -- pseudo-scientists and psychics alike will only trumpet their sucesses as part of their self-promotion. To get the real picture, you need to hear about their failures too," notes Hyde.

Philip Matthews, writing in the Marlborough Express, for a great article on 1080 that actually says there is really only one side to the story rather than introducing an alleged controversy with token "balance".
1080 this debate is a no-brainer (22 June 2011)

"We don't ask the Flat Earth Society to provide balance for a story on the International Space Station orbiting a spherical Earth. Why should we give a false impression of evidence-based "debate" in other areas such as 1080 or immunization? If there truly is controversy based on evidence, let the evidence speak for itself, but don't give us misleading balance based on opinion and hearsay."

In discussing the entrenched views regarding the use of 1080, Matthews wrote:

"One of those "entrenched views" is the weight of science; the other, emotive opinion. The debate is done a disservice by suggesting the views are somehow equivalent."

The NZ Skeptics also commend Dr Jan Wright, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, who, while not in the media itself, did a great job of evaluating the evidence and presenting a report clearly outlining the evidence. As always, the Bent Spoon will be awarded telepathically by those gathered for the annual NZ Skeptics Conference. Given the winner, it seems particularly appropriate that this year's conference is being held in Christchurch (August 26-28).


Brickbats

A listing of media material that deserves anything from a raspberry to outright condemnation. All are eligible for the Annual Bent Spoon Award (see previous "winners" here).

Sunday TVNZ: Ian Sinclair Conspiracy Inc
Described as "an absolute disgrace" for lacking research and balance in presenting and promoting fringe conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated scare stories.

It is a major concern when the media provides the oxygen of publicity to, for example, anti-vaccination campaigners who see attempts to reduce or eradicate measles and mumps as part of a conspiracy. If you don't think conspiracy theories are a problem, think again. Take a look at this section of WhatsTheHarm.net which covers over 2,000 cases of people suffering harm as a result of not thinking critically enough about conspiracy theories.

Rural Women New Zealand
For selecting Homeopathic Farm Support Ltd as the winner of their Enterprising Rural Women Award.

Recent strong moves of the homeopathic industry into the dairying area could well become a problem of signficant volume regarding animal welfare and, potentially, perceived as unmonitored animal experimentation on a mass scale. We have asked Fonterra -- who apparently support this practice used by one-third of their farmers -- for their stance on the ethical issues associated with treating serious animal health concerns such as haemorrhage, mastitis, scours,etc with water or sugar solutions -- they have yet to respond.

We also received notification that Rural Trader has run articles promoting homeopathic treatments for pig hunting dogs, so the animal welfare issues are clearly expanding at a time when such issues are gaining more and more attention in both national and international media.

TVNZ
For introducing Sensing Murder medium Deb Webber to the family of Aisling Symes just two days after the little girl had gone missing. Andi Brotherston, TVNZ's news & current affairs publicity manager, said the national broadcaster was "just being human".

TVNZ's One News Journalist Amy Kelley
For using a police press conference to mention the filming with Webber: "She's a medium on the television show Sensing Murder and she gave us some information on what she believed happened to the little girl. How seriously are police likely to take that information."
More here:
http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid;=10602517
http://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid;=10602134

TVNZ's Breakfast show host Paul Henry
For promoting Deb Webber's show and ticket sales.
More here: http://tvnz.co.nz/breakfast-news/breakfast-wednesday-october-7-3050717/video

Comments:

  • I find this sort of leeching off those who are vulnerable and desperate by quacks and psychics very repugnant.
  • Brotherston neglected to mention that TVNZ News have been filming Webber as she 'assists' the distraught Symes family. They also note that another series of Sensing Murder is due to start later this year.
  • This is an absolutely unforgivable exploitation of a tragic event in the pursuit of sensationalism and ratings.
  • A big black mark to TVNZ and Paul Henry for his Good Morning interview with purported psychic Deb Webber. To interview such a person at all on state-funded television is very questionable. To do so without taking the opportunity to pose some searching questions testing her credibility is bad journalism. To use the show and its website to promote her ticket sales is plainly wrong.
  • Is it too much to hope the police aren't going to waste precious resources on what is likely to be nothing more than an educated guess based on the history of these types of disappearances?The last thing this devastated family need to hear is the words of a person who has been caught talk­ing with the spir­its of dead peo­ple who didn't exist.
    http://sciblogs.co.nz/nz-skeptic/2009/10/09/tvnzs-psychic-step-too-far/

See plaudits for critical coverage of this exploitation in our bouquets section

See more in our Special Topics Psychics/Mediums and Police section for detailed commentary and background information.


Alice Neville, Herald on Sunday, September 27, 2009
Samples positive for poison

More here: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid;=10599844

The paper printed a claim that Hauraki Gulk marine life "tested in an Auckland clinic by EAV machine" werefound to contain brodifacoum and 1080. EAV machines combine acupuncture with tiny measurements of the skin's electrical resistance, claiming variously to map energy imbalances, detect AIDs viruses or correct imbalances in the immune system. Although popular in the alternative health industry, a number of civil, criminal and professional board actions around the globe have been taken against proponents for misleading claims, false advertising and even manslaughter.

Comments:

  • This is like saying your fridge magnet can tell if you have swine flu.. What's next - will the Herald's political reporters recommend that Parliament sit only when the Moon is in Scorpio? Or will they get their weather page information from chicken entrails?
  • [We] have seen the fantastic results from suppressing possums-increased bird life and recovery of the forest. It's sad that so many NZ journalists remain scientifically illiterate
  • An unbelievably bad piece of reporting and... indicative of the inexperience of a lot of journalists being hired these days, not to mention the parlous state of subediting.

See more in our Special Topics 1080 section here.

 

Bouquets

A listing of media material that demonstrates some critical thought, whether a consumer warning, a considered comment or an outright expose. All are eligible for the annual NZ Skeptics Bravo Awards (see previous Bravo winners here).

Keith Lynch, The Press 27 October 2009
Waking a nightmare with sleep paralysis

Extract: It appears that up to 50 per cent of the population will experience sleep paralysis in one form or another at least once in their lifetime, and some people experience it far more often than that.It's easy to understand why reports of alien abductions are often associated with the phenomenon as attacks often involve feelings of intense fear, terror, bliss, joy, anger, and feelings of dying or imminent death. The condition had many paranormal connotations in different cultures. In parts of the world it is called "the old hag" as people thought a hag was sitting on the victim while in the West Indies it is known as "kokma" describing a ghost baby who attacks the sleeper


Linley Boniface, 12 October 2009
Why psychics should butt out of Aisling Symes case

Extract: I don't blame anyone for believing in psychics, any more than I blame myself for having once believed in the Easter bunny. But it's a different matter when our state broadcaster stops treating psychics with any degree of scepticism.


Matt Nippert Herald on Sunday 11 Oct, 2009
TV psychic row breaks out as police search for missing girl

Extract: Former policeman Dan Thompson of Paragon Investigations said he was appalled that the broadcaster appeared to be using a criminal investigation to promote the stars of an entertainment programme. "This isn't 600,000 people sitting at home watching an entertainment show ... this is a little girl missing - let's get serious about it."
Thompson said police were obliged to follow all information offered, and feared Webber's claim could divert resources from more realistic leads.

Investigation head Inspector Gary Davey said all information given to the inquiry team was assessed and prioritised. While Webber's comments were not being written off, her vision was vague and of little use at present.
"If she's said there's a body in a ditch in West Auckland, there are plenty of ditches and we can't do much with that information.


John Drinnan, NZ Herald October 09, 2009
TVNZ role in toddler case unsettling

Extract: The role of TVNZ inserting itself into the story through one of its psychic stars is unsettling. Perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise when a breakfast news programme for public television has a TV psychic as a guest.


Russell Brown Media 7 October 8 2009
Series 3 Episode 12.

Comments:

  • An excellent critique of uncritical media support of the dodgy Tijuana-based stem cell therapy business. As one commentator noted, "the media are feeding these clinics".
  • Shame on the responsible media for not showing up to answer the very valid criticism of their role in promoting questionable treatment claims.