CRESSIDA EVANS AGAINST OTAGO DAILY TIMES

Case Number: 2882

Council Meeting: MARCH 2020

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Otago Daily Times

Ruling Categories: Photographs
Privacy
Tragedies, Offensive Handling of

Overview

1. Cressida Evans complained about an article published by Otago Daily Times Online News (ODT) on Wednesday, 15 January 2020 and online updates including a follow up article on 16 January 2020 entitled “Man killed in Invercargill collision”.

2. The article(s) covered a crash between a car and a truck on Dee Street, a busy stretch of State Highway 6, not far from the city’s central business district on 15 January 2020.Police were notified at 12.58pm.The ODT reporter was sent to the scene soon afterwards.The first story was published online at 1.40pm and the extent of injuries, and the fatality, were unconfirmed at that stage.The first story was illustrated with a photograph of the emergency crew working beside and on the victim’s car, the licence plate being blurred before publication.A video was published at 2.15pm.The revised report said Stuff had already reported a death.The car’s licence plate was again blurred in the photograph.The truck’s sign-written door is apparent for the last 5 seconds of the 18 second video.

3. The crash is the focus of the 16 January article, which also includes mention of other recent vehicle fatalities in the South Island.

The Complaint

4. The complainant complains that the journalism involved a “horrifying lack of decency” in respect of the crash.

5. In particular, the complainant says that the online photograph and video show the emergency services on scene working on the car and truck, both of which in a small place like Invercargill would be easily recognisable.

6. This was, in the complainant’s view, showing a complete disrespect to the victims of the crash, the truck driver and company involved, emergency services and the victims’ families.

7. The complainant considered that the photo did not add to or enhance the article in any way.

8. The complainant noted that other media outlets covered the story just as effectively without resorting to shock tactics.

9. The complainant mentioned that the online social media article had similar comments in support of her thoughts.ODT subsequently removed the overnight social media post and all responses.The complainant says that the removal was suggestedODT agreed that it breached decency standards there being no other apparently good reason to have removed the online post and responses.

10. The complainant was concerned that this was a sustained pattern of behaviour by ODT.

11. A complaint was lodged with ODT on 15 January 2020.A complaint was made to the New Zealand Media Council on 16 January 2020.

The Response

12. ODT responded on 15 January and to the subsequent Media Council complaint in similar terms; namely as follows.

13. ODT noted it had a job to report Otago-Southland news.That includes crashes including fatalities.This was to also highlight the serious issue of road safety.ODT considered the article, including photos and videos, were in the public interest.

14. ODT opined it had taken steps to cover the event respectfully and responsibly consistently with any major crash in the region:

a) Neither number plate was readable in any photos or video nor, in ODT’s view, did they contain the vehicles’ clear identifying features due to digital blurring, the truck’s sign-written door being cropped from the photograph, and crash damage including the removal of the car’s roof.

b) None of the images contained any sight of the victims or anything graphic.

c) No zoom-in to capture close-up images were published. ODT said its reporters are trained to be as sensitive as possible, and, to follow onsite emergency services’ directions (who are apparently comfortable with photographs being taken from a respectful distance).

15. The social media post about the crash that evening was removed because the newspaper did not have staffing resources that night to continue monitoring the post and moderate public comments.

16. In respect of other media coverage of the story, The Southland Times was the only other media behind the police cordon.Other media not present at the scene either used photographs of the police cordon or stock photographs.

17. Without examples of the alleged “sustained pattern of behaviour by the ODT”, it was difficult to address except to sayODT’s position is it seeks to cover emergency situations as thoroughly as possible, in accordance with Media Council principles, and in a manner that ought not be inconsistent with the practices and standards expected at other major news outlets.

The Decision

Issues

18. The complaint involves two issues:

Whether sufficient care was taken over the photo and video in a shocking and distressing situation.

Whether the photographs and video breached any expected privacy standards.


Relevant principles

19. The relevant principles here are:

Principle 11

“Editors should take care in photographic and image selection and treatment. Any technical manipulation that could mislead readers should be noted and explained.

Photographs showing distressing or shocking situations should be handled with special consideration for those affected’;

and

Principle 2

“Everyone is normally entitled to privacy of person, space and personal information, and these rights should be respected by publications. Nevertheless the right of privacy should not interfere with publication of significant matters of public record or public interest.

...

Those suffering from trauma or grief call for special consideration.”

Photographs and video

20. The photographs and video were ongoing coverage of a serious crash that ended up involving a fatality.The event is inherently one involving a distressing and shocking situation for those involved directly and indirectly.This calls for special consideration for those affected.

21. The photographs and video show emergency services working at the scene and the damage of the vehicles involved.No drivers (or passengers, if any) were shown.No close ups were published.The images are not unlike those used throughout the country during similar holiday-time road safety and crash articles.There was no focus on the shocking suffering or injuries.

22. Notwithstanding some online commentary criticising the images, and whilst the situation itself is undoubtedly distressing and shocking, the images in and of themselves are not in any way remarkable from an industry perspective.

Privacy

23. In a small community, it is inevitable that people are going to find out and know the persons involved in a crash occurring in the location it did.

24. No persons, other than emergency services, are seen in the publications.No names were published in relation to the crash.No close-ups were involved.These were proper and appropriate decisions.

25. ODT also responsibly blurred out the number plates and the truck’s company signage. The video in showing the sign written truck door shows identifiers of the trucking company for the last 5 out of 18 seconds. However, the story included comment from the general manager of the trucking company, which was also named. There can therefore be no breach of privacy by publication of the photograph.

When publication of images appropriate

26. ODT noted that in Graham Willan v Hawke’s Bay Today (c/n 2621), the Media Council said extra caution should be exercised in making the decision to publish with speed.Whilst not wishing to transgress, or ignore Media Council principles, the ODT sought definitive direction as to when publication of such photographs would be acceptable.Regardless,ODT staff had, as a result of this complaint, been reminded of the Willan direction and of the need to consider timing issues alongside issues of taste and content issues.

27. In Willan the question was whether it would have been hard for a reporter to check whether police had contacted the victim’s family, and the impact on the photograph decision there.In that case the photo of the wreckage with a tarpaulin over it did not hide the distinctive paint colour of the vehicle. The Council did not set out time frames for publication of photographs that might reveal to close family and friends the identity of the victims. The Council there, and here, notes immediacy is a challenge, but the Council’s principles must be adhered to.

28. It has concluded that there are too many variables involved to give detailed guidance on the appropriateness of the timing of publication.This is essentially an editorial function.There was discussion of a 40 minute delay rule, but such rigidity was rejected.However, the Council notes all reasonable steps must be taken to avoid unnecessary premature identification details of persons, fatalities and the like; and especially before appropriate affected persons are notified.This may involve blacking out some of the photo / video and delaying publication depending on the situation involved.

29. This being a complaint from a third party (rather than directly affected persons), the Council does not have a factual basis to hold that the publication timing adversely affected those called for special consideration under Principles 2 and 11 in this case.The reality here is that the readership online response itself is a guide toODT as to what will be acceptable to its intended audience even if compliant with the Principles.

Decision or Summary

30. The images did not breach Principles 2 or 11.

31. In not upholding the complaint, the Council does not endorse or set out a view that any particular time frame, for instance 40 minutes, is appropriate.There will be cases where publication within 40 minutes would be a breach of the Principles because of the facts involved, but this will always depend on the circumstances.Regardless, Principles 2 and 11 call for the media to give special consideration for those distressed, shocked, traumatised or grieving from the publication’s subject matter, guided by the Media Council principles.

32. New Zealand editors will be aware that they must be especially mindful of improper and/or premature identification of sensitive information, and that they will incur the understandable concern of their readers if they get it wrong.

Media Council members considering the complaint were Hon Raynor Asher, Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Jo Cribb, Jonathan MacKenzie, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Pravina Singh and Tim Watkin.

Rosemary Barraclough stood down to maintain the public member majority.

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