The Press Council considered a complaint about a front page article in NT News on 27 February 2017 in print, headed “HE TOLD ME HE LOVED ME” in quotation marks, superimposed on a large photograph of the complainant’s 14-year-old daughter. Below this were two sub-headlines, the first of which read “Friends shattered by teen highway tragedy”. The article was also published online, headed “Friends in shock over death of Darwin teens … on Stuart Highway”.
The article concerned the “death of two young men killed in a car accident”. The photograph of the complainant’s daughter occupied most of the page and showed her gazing pensively into the distance. The article referred in passing to friends and family missing the deceased, but most of the article concerned the daughter’s friendship with the boys, her reaction to their deaths and her last contact with them at a party the night of the accident. It also reported her comments that she “would never forget” the boys, with one of whom she “had a ‘special connection’”.
The complainant said she was not informed the article would focus on her daughter and was led to believe it would be a tribute to the two boys from various people who knew them. She said the focus on her daughter offended many of the boys’ family and friends. As a result, her daughter was a victim of cyberbullying which led to significant distress. The complainant said if they had been told how the article would be presented, she and her husband would not have agreed to their daughter being interviewed and photographed.
The complainant said she asked the publication to apologise to the families and friends of the boys but this had not occured.
The publication said the article accurately recorded what family, friends and the complainant’s daugher told it. It said the report of the death of two boys was in the public interest as road tragedies are a serious matter of public interest. The article was sympathetic to the boys and the thoughts of their friends who described them in kind and considered words.
The publication said the complainant consented to it interviewing and photographing her daughter and was present when this took place and, accordingly, it did not agree to publish an apology.
It said it nevertheless took the complaint very seriously. It accepted that the story was particularly sensitive to the families and friends involved due to the ages of the boys. It said it was aware of the stress a story of this nature could cause to those affected. It was never its intention to cause offence or distress; the story was only ever meant as a strong tribute to two popular young men, with the complainant’s daughter featured upfront as a close friend. The publication said this unfortunately appeared to have been misconstrued and, for that, it apologised.
The publication said it would strive to improve its processes for handling such sensitive issues. It said staff involved in the story had met to discuss why it triggered the response it did and to consider ways to ensure it did not occur in future.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require publications to take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy (General Principle 5), causing or contributing materially to substantial distress or a substantial risk to health or safety (General Principle 6), or publishing material gathered by unfair means (General Principle 7)—unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
Given the complainant consented to her daughter being interviewed and photographed, the Council does not consider that a reasonable expectation to privacy had been breached. Accordingly, the Council does not uphold the complaint based on General Principle 5. Nor did the Council consider, in such circumstances, that the material for publication was gathered by deceptive or unfair means. Accordingly, the Council does not uphold the complaint based on General Principle 7.
However, the Council notes the emphasis on the complainant’s daughter and particularly the prominent photograph of her on the front page. It also notes her age and likely emotional state, the subject matter about which she was being interviewed and the close proximity in time to the death of the boys. Given these sensitive circumstances, the publication ought to have informed the complainant that an article that focused on her daughter rather than tributes from a number of friends was proposed. Having regard to these factors, the Council considers that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial offence and distress to those close to the boys. The public interest in the reporting on matters of road safety did not justify the prominent focus on the complainant’s daughter. Accordingly, the Council upholds the complaint based on General Principle 6.
Relevant Council Standards
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
5. Avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
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.
7. Avoid publishing material which has been gathered by deceptive or unfair means, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
View Relevant Council Standards