Today The Daily Telegraph published a correction of false information in an article demonizing e-cigarettes, following review by Britain's Independent Press Standards Organisation (here). The correction was published on page 4 of the newspaper (left) and online.
The original story, “Four in 10 teenage e-cigarette users would not have smoked, warn health experts,” was authored by science editor Sarah Knapton on March 31 (here). The article’s subtitle and the lead sentence repeated the theme that “teenagers who would never have smoked are now using e-cigarettes” (my emphasis).
The study, published in BMC Public Health (here), made no such claim. In an online comment I noted, “First, the survey did not ask teenagers if they are ‘now using’ e-cigarettes; it asked them ‘have you *ever* tried or purchased e-cigarettes.’ Second, the survey did not identify ‘teenagers who would never have started smoking.’ Rather, it identified teenagers who had not smoked at the time of the survey and those who had smoked but not liked it.”
I filed a formal complaint with the IPSO. On April 2, the agency replied that my complaint “falls within our remit and discloses a possible breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice” and that it was being sent to The Telegraph in order to “to provide it with the opportunity swiftly to resolve the matter to your satisfaction, directly, if possible.”
The paper’s Head of Editorial Compliance, Jess McAree, emailed me on April 13, saying, “…there is nothing inaccurate or misleading about the article that requires amendment.”
I advised the IPSO that my complaint was not resolved:
“The article’s author, editor Sarah Knapton, could have described the study findings accurately. In her article teens who had ever tried or purchased e-cigarettes in the past were inappropriately
transformed into using e-cigarettes NOW…In addition, Knapton falsely converted teenagers who had never smoked in the past or who had tried it but didn’t like it into teens who would have NEVER started to smoke.
“These items are not just marginally inaccurate summaries, and they do not involve methodological complexities; they represent misuse of simple English words to conflate ever e-cig triers to current users and to redefine teens who hadn’t started to smoke as those who would never smoke. The article remains inaccurate and misleading, and it still requires amendment.
“I request that IPSO proceed with further consideration of my complaint.”
By May 11, my complaint was scheduled for a full committee hearing. In desperation, The Telegraph’s McAree sent the IPSO a description of the study’s technical findings, which I pointed out was “completely irrelevant to my complaint.”
Telegraph editors made a last-ditch, insufficient change on May 19, removing the phrase “would not have smoked” from the headline, but they made no substantial changes in the subhead or article (second photo).
Finally, on June 25, the IPSO notified me of their finding that The Telegraph article was misleading in redefining teens who hadn’t started to smoke as those who would never smoke. IPSO required the paper to take remedial action: “The article was on page 12 of the newspaper, and correction should be published on this page, or further forward in the newspaper. The correction on the online article should make clear that the article had since been amended, and should be published at the foot of the online article.” The IPSO published my complaint and its decision here.
The IPSO should have acknowledged that The Telegraph mislabeled teens who had ever tried or purchased e-cigarettes in the past as users of e-cigarettes NOW. However, this part of my petition was not upheld. I am disappointed that the IPSO allowed the newspaper to transform ever use of e-cigarettes into current use. Additionally, the IPSO inaccurately reported my complaint by not including the word “now,” which The Telegraph used in describing e-cig use in its subhead, first paragraph and fourth paragraph.
The IPSO exists “to promote and uphold the highest professional standards of journalism in the UK, and to support members of the public in seeking redress where they believe that the Editors' Code of Practice has been breached.” The organization maintains high standards of journalism, and it has a high bar for complaints. Of the 188 complaints reviewed by the committee since its establishment in 2014, only 41 (22%) have been confirmed. Fourteen complaints against The Telegraph have been reviewed; mine is the third to be upheld.
The IPSO decision sends a message to the British news media: Get your facts straight when reporting about e-cigarettes. It’s a shame that there is no equivalent media watchdog in the U.S.