COMPLAINT AGAINST THE NORTHERN ADVOCATEThe Press Council has considered a complaint by a Northland family against The Northern Advocate. By a majority of seven to four the Press Council has upheld the complaints relating to breaches of the Privacy and Photographs Principles. Complaints relating to Accuracy, Fairness and Balance (Principle 1), Comment and Fact (Principle 4), and Headlines and Captions (Principle 5) are not upheld.
On December 7, 2010, The Northern Advocate published a front-page article picturing an injured but un-named driver being removed from an accident situation with the heading “Driver injured after ‘hooning’ into wall”.
In the body of the article it was evident that the term ‘hooning’ had come from a member of the public and there was mention that Whangarei police ‘were not ruling out a medical condition as a contributing factor in the drama’.
Perspectives of a number of eye-witnesses were provided, and the information that the driver was taken to hospital with moderate injuries following the trail of destruction left by his ute which had careered out of control.
The same day that the newspaper appeared, a daughter of the man involved visited the reporter, angry and upset about the fact that the man was identifiable in the photograph, that his dignity had not been respected and that the word ‘hooned’ in the heading suggested that the man’s driving had been irresponsible.
The editor then received a letter on 19 December alleging breaches of the Press Council Principles of Accuracy, Fairness and Balance; Privacy (Those suffering from trauma or grief call for special consideration); Comment and Fact; Headlines and Captions; Photographs and Graphics.
The editor and reporter were accused in the letter of showing ‘a total lack of empathy’ and the complainants stated that the family had been affected and that the healing process would be long, physically and emotionally.
The complainants requested the paper not to respond to this complaint ‘with excuses or trying to justify what you have done as this would only be seen as insulting’. They requested a front-page apology.
The paper’s editor responded that he understood how media coverage of events such as these could upset families; that the driver’s daughter had been ‘clearly upset’ on the day she came in; that he told her what her rights were in terms of a formal complaint; that they had not thought the photo could allow the driver to be identified and that he had not been named; that they agreed ‘clarification of the headline is appropriate’ and proposed publishing an attached clarification on page 3.
The editor apologised for any upset the report had caused the man’s immediate family, and invited them to write a letter expressing their views, for publication. He hoped that the driver was making a quick recovery, and if they were dissatisfied with the solutions suggested they could approach the Press Council.
A short clarificatory statement was published, on page 3 as the editor had mentioned, stating that the term ‘hooning’ did not imply that the driver involved ‘was in any way behaving irresponsibly’ and that the paper now understood that the driver had crashed after losing control for medical reasons. The paper apologised to the driver and his family for any inference that reckless driving had been involved.
On 11 January the family forwarded the editor’s reply to the Press Council, interspersing his comments with reactions of their own. They still felt that the paper had breached ‘professional and moral boundaries’ and believed that their daughter had been told she was ‘overreacting’.
Despite the editor’s claim that he had provided details on how to register complaints, the family stated that they had had to approach their Citizens’ Advice Bureau to find out how to complain to the Press Council.
Their issue was that the driver’s dignity had been breached as the photo showed him in a way that they found ‘devastating’ and that as a victim he should have been treated with dignity and respect. The paper’s publishing of him in that situation, whether or not he was identifiable, was the cause of their distress.
They further took issue with the location and size of the clarification and apology. They did not wish to avail themselves of the option of writing a letter to the paper as they believed the driver’s medical condition was his business, and any letter might lead to further identification of the driver and his family.
In this response (although not in a later formal complaint to the Council) they stated that they wished to meet face to face in a mediated hearing with the editor and reporter.
The Newspaper’s Response:
The editor replied to the family’s complaint via the Press Council, acknowledging that the word ‘hooning’ had possibly led to an inference that the accident had occurred because of poor driving rather than a medical condition, despite the paper’s having mentioned the latter option in the article.
On further examination of the photo, the editor acknowledged that the driver’s face could have been further obscured.
He described his perception of the visit with the driver’s daughter, maintaining that he had decided not to try to resolve the situation immediately because of her ‘emotional state’. However, he reiterated that he had provided details of how to contact the Press Council, and also provided contact details for the paper if she wanted to complain further.
He explained why the article had been written (it was an unusual crash, in a public place, and had resulted in closure of part of the CBD) and inquired as to the driver’s condition.
He stated that at no time had the daughter been told she was overreacting, either by him or by other staff members. Additionally, he had clearly indicated where the clarification would be located in the Saturday paper, and reiterated the family’s right to write to the paper.
While he felt in hindsight that a face-to-face meeting after the initial meeting could have resolved most of the issues in the complaint, he believed that to attempt this while the daughter was so upset would have been counter-productive.
It is obvious from the correspondence and the complaints that the family felt outraged about the publication of the driver’s photograph in a situation where they believed his dignity had been breached, and with a heading to the article that seemed to imply that he had driven irresponsibly.
It is equally obvious that they do not feel that the editor and the paper have fully understood their position, or the pain and anger they experienced and apparently continue to experience.
However, it is also equally obvious that the editor did take aspects of their complaint into consideration, publishing a clarification that indicated that the accident was the result of a medical condition not poor driving.
He also subsequently (in his response to the complaint to the Press Council) acknowledged that that the face could have been further obscured.
As to whether the daughter was accused of overreacting, or whether the paper’s response was ‘professional and empathetic’, the parties have different perspectives of those aspects of the complaint and the Council is not able to decide on them.
The majority of the Press Council considers that the following principles have been breached in this situation. 2: Privacy, including the statement that “Those suffering from trauma or grief call for special consideration”); and 10: Photographs and Graphics - Editors should take care in photographic and image selection and treatment. Photographs showing distressing or shocking situations should be handled with special consideration for those affected.
However, the complaints against Accuracy, Fairness and Balance (Principle 1), Comment and Fact (Principle 4), and Headlines and Captions (Principle 5) are not upheld. It should have been clear to readers of the full article that medical causes were being investigated as part of the accident.
Further, the paper did publish a clarification about the ‘hooning’ comment and apologise to the family, and the editor does appear to have shown genuine concern for the impact of the article on family members, although they dispute this.
Press Council members upholding the complaints relating to Principles 2 and 10 were Barry Paterson, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Stephen Stewart, Chris Darlow and Keith Lees
Press Council members who would not uphold the complaint relating to Principles 2 and 10 were Kate Coughlan, Penny Harding, Clive Lind and Lynn Scott.