The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication on 16 April 2015 of an online article in the Gold Coast Bulletin headlined “Police forced to use taser on transgender woman in dramatic Southport arrest”.
The article reported the arrest of a transgender woman in the early hours of a morning. The woman allegedly became violent during a confrontation with police, during which she allegedly produced a knife, which she refused to drop. The woman was tasered during the confrontation. The material included references to the woman's transgender status in the headline, the first paragraph and four other places in the article. The article referred to her as a "pre-surgery” transgender woman. It included five photographs of the woman taken during the incident, two of which were captioned: “A transgender woman played it up for the cameras as police led her away, even giving a sultry hair flick” and "The high slit on the dress left little to the imagination".
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether the material breached General Principle 6 of its Standards of Practice requiring a publication to take reasonable steps to “avoid causing... substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest”. Council also asked the publication whether it took steps to ensure “reasonable fairness and balance” in its treatment of the arrested woman, as required by General Principle 3, and whether a fair opportunity to reply was required “to address a possible breach of General Principle 3”, as required by General Principle 4.
The publication said the article was an accurate report of an arrest during which the alleged offender was tasered by police. The incident occurred when the woman allegedly became violent whilst armed with a knife, while apparently under the influence of a drug, suspected to be ice. It said it had used appropriate terminology to report the woman’s transgender status. The police had referred to her transgender status when explaining why they had tasered the woman, suggesting that she had “the strength of a man”. The publication said the captions describing the woman’s appearance and behaviour were intended to convey her casual reaction, despite the gravity of situation, including the threat her alleged conduct posed to bystanders, police and emergency workers.
The publication said police use of tasers in Queensland had been the subject of public debate for some time and had recently become the centre of local debate following an incident two months prior, in which a woman had been reportedly partially blinded as a result of the use of a police taser. For this reason, it said that it had reported the explanation by police for employing the taser on the woman, namely that “although she looks feminine, this offender still has the strength of a man”. That was why the descriptions of the alleged offender as "transgender" and "pre-surgery transgender woman" were relevant. However, it acknowledged that in the production process, Superintendent Hanbridge’s above comments – which were published in the print edition of the newspaper – were inadvertently edited out of the online article. The publication said it had taken steps to update the article with the police comments, and had reduced the number of references to transgender and removed the term “pre-surgery”.
The publication said it had made available to all relevant editorial staff the guide published by the Poynter Institute: “Nine ways journalists can do justice to transgender people's stories”.
The Council is sensitive to the issue of the media’s portrayal of transgender issues. However, the alleged offender’s transgender status was central to the police explanation of the reason for use of the taser. Accordingly, there was no breach of General Principle 3 or 6.
The Council also notes the steps taken by the publication to address the complaint and to ensure such issues are covered sensitively.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the following Standard of Practice of the Council:
3. Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts.”
4. Ensure that where material refers adversely to a person, a fair opportunity is given for subsequent publication of a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle
6: “Avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.”