JULIE AND PETER KEAST AGAINST THE SOUTHLAND TIMESIn a partially split decision the Press Council has not upheld a complaint from Julie and Peter Keast against The Southland Times.
On 16th November 2011 The Southland Times published an article reporting on the death of a young man in a car crash. The young man’s name was provided despite the reporter noting that “Police had not named the dead man, but a memorial page has been set up on Facebook for William Keast”. A photograph showed the wrecked car on the riverbank, along with a squashed box that had been used to store alcohol.
There was no reference in the article to possible use of alcohol; a range of comments (14) on The Southland Times’ website by people who knew the young man complained both of the photograph’s showing of a Woodstock box, and the publishing of the victim’s name before it had been released by police.
The parents of the young man wrote to the editor of The Southland Times on 9 February complaining that the paper had been published and delivered before they had even been able to see their son, let alone formally identify him; that they understood the police had asked that William’s name not be published until the police had released it; that the photograph was suggestive of alcohol involvement in the crash; and that the photograph of the car was available on the Stuff website before the young man’s father had been notified of his death (however there was no mention in their complaint about the website, of his name being published there).
The editor replied eleven days later, acknowledging that the coverage had caused distress; rebutting the suggestion that a police request had been received requesting that the name not be published before their formal release of it; that the name had been circulated on Facebook and Twitter and was widely known by the time of publication; and that the photograph was selected because it showed the difficulties that rescuers faced in retrieving the young man’s body. The editor stated that the alcohol carton was simply “the rubbish that littered the riverbank at the crash scene”. The editor’s response concluded by defending the paper’s “professional and responsible way [of] reporting the accident both in print and online”.
Dissatisfied with this response, the parents laid a complaint with the Press Council. They claimed that the reporting was morally wrong; the photograph ‘suggestive’ and the timing on the website was unfair; also that William’s name had been published prior to police release.
The parents felt that the photographer would not have been ‘ushered through’ to the site as claimed by the editor, when William’s mother had been denied access.
They wondered whether items had been “arranged for the photograph as they were in the boot of the car” whilst stating that the photograph was misleading and distressing – the boys had not been drinking, but people had taken this implication from the photograph.
Finally, William’s father had not been informed of the death by the time that Stuff ran the photograph of the car.
The Newspaper’s Response
The editor replied to the Press Council, stating that it took seriously its responsibility not to cause unnecessary distress to family and friends in situations such as this, while striving to provide balance with the public’s right to know. He felt they had got the balance right.
The paper had waited until the following day before naming the dead youth, and his name had been widely known on the Facebook tribute page as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
With regard to the photograph, the editor reiterated that his photographer and reporter had been “ushered through” to the site by police on duty, and that nothing in the photographs had been staged. That was the scene as encountered by the paper’s staff. He recognised the parents’ distress but believed that the impact of this had to be balanced against the newspaper’s responsibility to inform readers quickly and fully of events of interest.
The Keasts replied that the response was ‘glib’, that their concerns with the photograph and naming of their son remained, and that the editor’s claim about ‘events of interest’ was sensationalist. The paper had also subsequently reported on a Coronial inquest, naming the other passenger of the car, and the Keasts felt this, too, was inappropriate.
In its Principle 2, the Council states that people suffering from trauma or grief call for special consideration. Newspapers have agreed they should give special consideration to people in this situation. Mr and Mrs Keast felt The Southland Times was insensitive in publishing a photograph of their son William's car, which they thought may have been posted on the newspaper's website within hours of the accident. They complained that the photo showed a Woodstock carton at the crash scene, and that their son's name was published before police had released it to the media.
In the Council's view the obligation to exercise special care does not preclude publishing a photograph of a crashed vehicle and any debris around it. On no account should a news photo be "doctored" to change anything at the scene. Likewise, the Council has no way of determining whether the Police had or had not requested an embargo of the name until they had formally notified this.
The duty of care does not mean that media must never publish a deceased's name until the police release it, though editors should be mindful that police might not have been able to notify all of the deceased's immediate family.
The Council was of the view that The Southland Times was entitled to identify William in the newspaper, published around 22 hours after the accident. That interval seemed sufficient to satisfy the special consideration required.
However, the Council was divided on whether the photograph of the car should have been posted on the website, possibly within hours of the crash. The complainants said they "understand" the photograph was on the website at about 11am that day and they were not able to make contact with Mr Keast until about 11.30a.m.
The Council also noted that some caution should be exercised in accepting Facebook as an authoritative source, as it was not unknown for people to be mistakenly reported there, to have died. But in this case, in a small community, the word of the accident and the knowledge of who had died would have spread very quickly. Even without the instant reach of the web, news travels fast by word of mouth in a small community and its news media cannot appear to be lagging.
The Council concluded that the newspaper was entitled to publish William's name, and the majority the Council supported the paper’s right to publish the photograph of the accident when it did. However four of the nine-member Council thought that the early publication of the scene of the accident did not meet the Council’s special consideration requirement. But while the complaint was not upheld, the case underlines the sensitivity and care expected of websites as well as newspapers when their readers include the bereaved.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Keith Lees, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.
Council members dissenting on the early website publication of the photograph were Pip Bruce Ferguson, Keith Lees, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.
Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.