The Press Council has considered a complaint about an article headed "Smoking healthier than gay marriage" on the websites of The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times on 5 September 2012. It reported on comments made by Jim Wallace, then Managing Director of the Australian Christian Lobby, after a public debate at a university.
A photograph of Mr Wallace appeared below the headline. The first sentence then read: “The head of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) Jim Wallace says smoking is healthier than the lifestyle that would be promoted by same-sex marriage.” The fourth, fifth and seventh paragraphs included the following direct quotations from Mr Wallace:
“I think we’re going to owe smokers a big apology when the homosexual community’s own statistics for its health – which it presents when it wants more money for health – are that is [sic] has higher rates of drug-taking, of suicide, it has the life of a male reduced by up to 20 years.”
“The life of smokers is reduced by something like seven to 10 years and yet we tell all our kids at school they shouldn’t smoke.”
“But what I’m saying is we need to be aware that the homosexual lifestyle carries these problems and… normalising the lifestyle by the attribution of marriage, for instance, has to be considered in what it does encouraging people into it.”
ACL complained that the single inverted commas around the headline incorrectly implied Mr Wallace actually used the words “smoking is healthier than gay marriage”. It also said the headline and first sentence were inaccurate and unfair paraphrases because he merely mentioned two activities which reduce lifespans and pointed out only one of them is the subject of health warnings. It said this was not the same as saying one was “healthier” than the other, and also that the issue he raised was not gay marriage but the lifestyle it promotes.
The publication acknowledged that use of single inverted commas in a headline can signify it is a direct quotation (in contrast with the text of a report, where more space is available and double inverted commas are used for quotations). But it said in a headline, single inverted commas are often used – as in this instance, to indicate a paraphrase or summary, not a quotation.
It also said the headline and first sentence were accurate paraphrases as Mr Wallace had directly raised the issue of health statistics, stated the number of years by which each of the two activities is said to reduce lifespan, and made the link between gay marriage and “the homosexual lifestyle”. It said the precise quotations were only a few paragraphs later.
The Council agrees with ACL that the use of single inverted commas in a headline may be interpreted by many readers as signifying a direct quotation. However, as the Council pointed out in a recent adjudication, varying practices mean there is “confusion as to whether it signifies a direct quotation or a paraphrase”.
The Council has previously indicated it intends to develop a Specific Standard on this topic. In the meantime, given the level of confusion and risk of misunderstanding, the Council considers there is an especially great obligation to ensure that if material in a headline is in single inverted commas and intended to be a paraphrase, it must be an accurate and fair summary of the words actually used by the speaker. It should not, for example, be the journalist’s interpretation of reasons behind what was said or implications of that statement.
In this case the Council considers, on balance, that the headline was a reasonably accurate paraphrase of what Mr Wallace said, as was the first paragraph. Accordingly, the complaint is not upheld.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced.”