The Press Council has considered a complaint about an article “Welfare fraud costs us $78m” in The Advertiser and the adelaidenow website on 18 January 2013. The words “Single-parent women most likely to cheat” appeared above the headline. The first sentence said “South Australian welfare recipients have ripped off nearly $80 million from Centrelink in the past financial year and most of the fraudsters are women”.
After the article appeared, the Federal Department of Human Services (which had supplied some data for it) told the publication that fraud-related debt in South Australia in the past year had been about $2.5 million, not $78 million. The article was then removed from the website and a “clarification” was published in the newspaper on the following day.
Margaret Moir complained that the $78 million figure in the original article was “grossly inaccurate”. She said the subsequent clarification lacked prominence, especially given the prominence of the original article, the seriousness of the inaccuracy, and the linkage made with sole-parent women.
The publication acknowledged the mistakes but pointed to its action to correct them. It said page 2, where the clarification appeared, is one of the most read pages and is more prominent than page 5, where the original article appeared.
The Council’s Principles require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure that reports are accurate, fair and balanced. The Council has concluded that the inaccuracies arose from a failure to distinguish between the amount of overall debt and the small proportion of that amount which is due to fraud. They were aggravated by the inaccurate estimate of the share of the national debt total which was owed by South Australians. In addition, when stating how much the debt “costs us”, no account was taken of the fact that the department says most of it is being recovered.
The Council acknowledges there was some ambiguity in the way in which the department responded to the newspaper’s original request for information. In addition, two subsequent sentences in the article avoided to some extent the errors described above by saying that “welfare recipients in this state owe $78 million in fraudulently claimed and incorrectly overpaid benefits” and “only $43 million of this money is being recovered” by Centrelink from recipients. But they were not sufficiently clear and prominent to compensate for the serious errors in the headlines and first sentence.
Accordingly, the complaint on the ground of inaccuracy is upheld.
The Council’s Principles also require serious inaccuracies to be corrected promptly and with due prominence in order to neutralise, as far as possible, any damage caused by the original article. The Council concluded the “clarification”, while it may have addressed the Department’s concerns, did not effectively explain the errors for other readers. In addition, it should have been frankly headed as a “correction” and with words such as “welfare fraud” to help attract the attention of people who might have read the original article. It should have been positioned more prominently – for example, in the top half of page 2 (or any other page up to page 5, at the top of which the article itself had appeared). These aspects were especially important because of the link in the headlines between the alleged amount of fraud and the involvement of sole parent women.
Accordingly, the complaint about the “clarification” is upheld. The Council acknowledges, however, that the publication responded promptly when it became aware of the error, both by removing the article from its website and by publishing the “clarification” the following day in a genuine attempt to address the concerns which had been brought to its attention at that time.
(not required for publication by the newspaper):
The Council considered the publication’s online response. By swiftly removing the article from its website, it had ensured that the error did not continue. But readers who saw the original article online and did not see the clarification in print would not have been aware of the correction. The Council will consider specific standards for online corrections in order to address this type of problem.
Relevant Council Standards
(not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies part of General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced.”; General Principle 2: “Where it is established that a serious inaccuracy has been published, a publication should promptly correct the error, giving the correction due prominence”; and Note 2: “The Council interprets ‘due prominence’ as requiring the publication to ensure the retraction, clarification, correction, explanation or apology has the effect, as far as possible, of neutralising any damage arising from the original publication.”