The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint about the coverage in The Portland Observer in September-December 2011 of a local development project involving a foreshore lagoon.
The local shire council complained that the coverage focused much more on the small number of objectors to the project than on the council which was proposing it. It said the newspaper often failed to seek its comment on objectors’ assertions and that some headlines on the articles were inaccurate or unfair. It said the newspaper had also conveyed the inaccurate impression that the local yacht club did not support the project and the shire council's subsequent request for a correction and apology had been rejected.
The newspaper said that the reporting had been fair, balanced and accurate. Inclusion of both sides of the argument in every article had been difficult to achieve but opportunities for comment or reply had always been provided to the council. It said numerous letters from supporters and opponents of the project had been published and that earlier in 2011, before the objectors became more active, it had focused principally on the views of the council and other supporters. The newspaper said it accurately reported the yacht club's new president and had been unaware of the club’s earlier expression of support. The council's response on that issue had been published in the next available edition.
The Press Council has concluded that a number of articles during the period in question had focused principally on the objectors, partly through the wording of some of the headlines and the placement of the council’s comments within articles. However, this focus was largely justifiable as the protestors’ activities and statements were the principal activities being undertaken at that time in relation to the project. A different focus had applied earlier in the year. Accordingly, the Press Council considered that the coverage during the period in question was not so unfair or unbalanced as to constitute a clear breach of the Council’s principles. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is not upheld.
The Council has concluded that while the report of the yacht club president’s statement may have been literally accurate the newspaper should have recognised that the meaning of his words needed clarification in the light of the club’s previous expression of support for the project. Given the significance of the club’s views in this context, the newspaper should also have sought the shire council’s comment before publishing. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is upheld.
Relevant Council Standards
(not required to be published):
This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced. They should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers either by omission or commission”.