The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by print and online articles in the Fraser Coast Chronicle on 8 February 2014 about the intensive care unit (ICU) at the Hervey Bay Hospital.
Headings on the print article read: "Intensive care unit scrapped", "Exclusive: Lives put at risk as $ axe falls on Hervey Bay ICU", "Axe for intensive care unit", and "Critical: Vital Hervey Bay Hospital service under closure cloud". The online heading was "Hervey Bay ICU to close down".
The articles began: “Grave fears are held that mortality rates at Hervey Bay Hospital could skyrocket after news broke that the centre’s intensive care unit would be shut at the end of the month.” It was reported that the Wide Bay Hospital and Health Service had said the ICU operations were being reviewed, at the end of which “a decision as to the appropriate model of care” would be made. It said unnamed staff of the hospital had been told “a decision has been made” and one of them had said “it was likely to translate to unnecessary deaths at the hospital”. There was also an editorial, which strongly criticised the “sudden news” of the ICU’s closure.
A few hours after the article was published, the chair of the hospital board told the Chronicle the report of the ICU’s closure was incorrect and the Health Minister said it would not close, although it would no longer have two specialist staff who had been allocated for a trial period. The website was updated with a reference to these statements, including that “the Health Minister has confirmed that there will in fact be a downgrade to the ICU, despite earlier denials”, and the heading was changed to "Board denies Hervey Bay Hospital’s ICU will be closed".
The original print and online articles were published on a Saturday and the next two print editions were on the following Monday and Tuesday. Those editions and the website prominently reported the statements by the Health Minister and the hospital, making it clear the unit would not be closed, and there was also a lengthy print article by the hospital chair criticising the report of closure.
The Press Council asked the publication to comment on whether it might have breached the Standards of Practice, which require that reasonable steps are taken to ensure accuracy and fairness and that serious inaccuracies are corrected promptly and with due prominence.
The publication acknowledged the original report of closure was seriously incorrect. It said the initial claim was made by what it regarded as credible staff sources at the hospital and when it put the claims to the hospital, it did not receive direct answers. Nevertheless, it said further efforts at clarification should have been made before publishing the article.
The publication said the extensive coverage on subsequent days would have left readers in no doubt about the true position. But it said it should also have published an apology, even though the hospital had said that was not necessary. It also acknowledged that its initial online report of the Health Minister’s statement should have clearly indicated the closure would not occur and should not have claimed there had been “earlier denials” of a “downgrade to the ICU”.
The Council has concluded that the publication did not take reasonable steps to ensure accuracy and fairness when reporting closure of the unit, especially given the importance of the issue and the conviction with which it was reported. It also considers the publication’s online efforts to correct the report were insufficiently clear, and that it should have apologised online and in the next print issue.
Accordingly, the Council has determined that its Standards of Practice were breached in these respects. It welcomes, however, the publication’s detailed acknowledgement to the Council that it had not handled the matter appropriately.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced”; General Principle 2: “Where it is established that a serious inaccuracy has been published, a publication should promptly correct the error, giving the correction due prominence”; and Note 2 to the General Principles: “The Council interprets ‘due prominence’ as requiring the publication to ensure the retraction, clarification, correction, explanation or apology has the effect, as far as possible, of neutralising any damage arising from the original publication, and that any published adjudication is likely to be seen by those who saw the material on which the complaint was based.”