The article concerned the “death of two young men …tragically killed in an accident on the Stuart Highway – now believed to have been the devastating result of a prank gone wrong”. The photograph of the teenage girl occupied most of the page and showed her gazing pensively into the distance. The article referred in passing to friends and family as missing the deceased, but most of the article concerned the girl’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 comments from the girl that she “would never forget” the boys, with one of whom she “had a ‘special connection’”.
The complainant, the aunt of the latter boy, said that reporting the accident as the result of a “prank gone wrong” did not match the information conveyed by the police to the family. The complainant also said the print headline, together with the prominent photo of the girl and the focus on her reaction, with only passing reference to the family, caused them added stress.
The publication said that the accident was then “believed to have been the devastating result of a prank gone wrong”, according to several sources at the time. The publication said police at the time corrected some of the media for falsely reporting that the driver had ‘swerved’ but the publication had not reported the ‘swerving’ allegation at any time.
The publication said it attempted to present the relationship between the teenage girl and the complainant’s nephew in a context of friendship. It also made attempts to speak with members of the boys’ families but was told they were too distraught to speak on the day, which it respected.
The publication said the article was presented as a strong and heartfelt tribute to two popular young men which was unfortunately misconstrued. It said it never intended the story to exacerbate a tragic and terrible time and if the families thought it had done so, it apologised.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require that publications take reasonable steps to ensure factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion (General Principle 1), provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading (General Principle 2), and to avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy (General Principle 5) or causing or contributing materially to substantial distress or risk to health or safety (General Principle 6), unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
The Council accepts the publication’s claim that it relied on several sources for the belief that a “prank gone wrong” had caused the accident. The Council considers that this statement was not presented as a verified fact. Accordingly, the Council does not uphold the complaint based on General Principles 1 and 2 in this respect.
The Council considers that the public interest in reporting on matters of road safety outweighed any breach of the complainant’s family’s reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to the coverage. Accordingly, the Council does not uphold the complaint based on General Principle 5.
The Council accepts that the publication intended the article to be a tribute to the boys. However, given the absence of comments or photographs from other friends or family, the heavy emphasis on the teenage girl and on her reaction and comments, and the likely emotional state of those affected, the article was likely to cause substantial offence and distress, without sufficient public interest. 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:
1. Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
2. Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
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.