DAWN DUNJEY AGAINST THE OAMARU MAILDawn Dunjey complained to the Press Council about a front page article published by The Oamaru Mail on 17 May 2010. The complaint is upheld.
Under the headline “Troubled life cut short for local woman” the article (written by the newspaper’s editor) started as follows: “A young North Otago woman who gained notoriety for her skirmishes with the law died suddenly on Friday”
The article then went on to revisit a number of events in Elle Dunjey’s life over the past months.
Accompanying the article was a photograph of Elle taken when she was arrested in January 2009 wearing night garments and accompanied by police.
There was an immediate public outcry about the publication of the article and photograph.
The editor then wrote an editorial published on 19 May (the day before Elle’s funeral).
In it, the editor defended her decision to publish the article and photograph, saying that it was only one of several deaths of young people in the Oamaru area in recent times which had left people upset and questioning.
The editorial also offered an apology to Elle’s family and friends for any upset publication of the article and photograph had caused.
Feedback from the public had been a learning experience, and the newspaper accepted that a more appropriate photograph than the one used should have been chosen.
The complainant, mother of Elle, listed a number of principles of the Press Council which she believed had been breached by the publication of the article and the photograph. In particular she cited the following from the Press Council’s Principles: “Those suffering from trauma or grief call for special consideration”.
She stated that publication of the article and the photograph had caused extreme distress to Elle’s family and friends.
Further, the editorial of 19 May only added to the distress already caused by the first article. In the days following publication of the article there were many letters to the editor, highly critical of the newspaper’s handling of such a sensitive event.
The Newspaper’s Response
The editor stated that she had tried to contact the Dunjey family after learning of Elle’s death, and was told they were not available and would not want to comment.
She then prepared the story, summarizing Elle’s colourful life. She and her sub-editor believed the public would want to know about the death of such a high-profile member of the community
A public backlash started almost immediately and she wrote the editorial to explain why she had written the article and published the photograph. She apologized in the editorial for any distress the article and photograph had caused.
Public reaction continued to be intense.
She and the general manager of the newspaper had a meeting with Mrs Dunjey sometime after publication of the article and photograph. Mrs Dunjey was distraught and upset and spoke in very strained tones for about five minutes. The manager told Mrs Dunjey that it was important that she could state her case and thanked her for coming in, after which she left.
The Council does not deny the newspaper its right to publish the fact of the death – but it is the way the newspaper went about it that has brought it into conflict with Elle’s family, the local community and the Council’s Principles.
Publications, particularly those serving small communities, have a particular duty to report tragic events with sensitivity. The untimely death of a young person is distressing to such communities as there is a greater likelihood of individuals being known to one another, and in the event of a highly publicized sudden death, the community becomes alight with speculation.
In this case, the front-page lead article and its accompanying photograph added fuel to fire. It contributed to increased distress and trauma of Elle’s family and friends at this time of tragedy.
The editor did not try hard enough to obtain positive details about Elle; the article was simply a list of her problems with the law.
The Press Council acknowledges that the editor tried to make amends in the editorial published on 19 May. She outlined her reasoning behind publication, but also admitted that it would have been more sensitive to publish a different photograph. She also apologized to the family and friends for any hurt caused. She said the newspaper would welcome letters that gave a positive picture of Elle.
If the editor had taken the advice she herself outlined, the community would have been better served. Despite the editorial, the damage caused by the original article and photograph continued, and continues, to cause distress to Elle’s family and friends.
The editor can be in no doubt that this article crossed the bounds of acceptability - her community told her that.
The Press Council Principle on Privacy states: “Those suffering from trauma and grief call for special consideration.” This special consideration was lacking here: both in publishing the photograph of Elle while under arrest, and in failing to provide any positive qualities or memories of the young woman.
The complaint is upheld on the grounds of insufficient consideration for those suffering from trauma and grief.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.