The Press Council has considered a complaint about an article published in The Age on 8 December 2014.The article appeared in the Education supplement of the print edition, headed “Young refugees learn by joining in”, and online as “Refugees learn English by doing, playing, working”. The article featured successful students in a youth program run by Victorian-based Adult Migrant Education Service (AMES) and research results said to confirm the benefits of the program.
The Complainant, a former employee of AMES and experienced in the adult migrant education sector, complained the article was misleading and the publication failed adequately to disclose conflicts of interest. She said the online article as it originally appeared did not disclose that the writer was employed by AMES, although the print version noted that the writer “is a writer with AMES”. The Complainant said the reference to a “research paper commissioned by AMES” which “recommended additional funding into the AMEP” (Australian Migrant Education Program) misleadingly suggests there had been independent or external research, without disclosing that the researcher was a long-term employee of AMES. Similarly, the article misleadingly presented the research as an endorsement of further investment in the federally-funded AMEP, without adequately disclosing the funding relationship between AMEP and AMES. The Complainant said without such disclosure, the ordinary reader would not be aware of these matters.
The Complainant wrote to the publication about her concerns, but the only action taken was to add the omitted disclosure statement about the AMES writer to the online version. She said this inadequately addressed the issues she had raised about the research and funding aspects of the article.
The publication said that the article was a feature piece within a package presenting one teacher’s experience of migrant education over thirty years. It said it was not a campaign or promotional piece on AMES and the appropriate attribution was published.
The publication said the fact that the researcher was an employee of AMES did not necessarily indicate that the results were biased or lacked validity. It also said the term “commissioned” did not necessarily mean that the research was external.
The publication said the article was not an ‘advertorial’ as no payment had been made for placement of the article, and it was simply intended as a positive and informative overview of migrant education containing a sympathetic ‘success story’. The publication said the absence of a disclaimer on the online version of the article was an oversight which was rectified as soon as it was pointed out by the complainant.
The Council’s relevant Standards of Practice require that reasonable steps must be taken to ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading and that conflicts of interests are avoided or adequately disclosed, and that they do not influence published material.
The Council considers the print version of the article was clear about the author’s relationship and welcomes the publication’s prompt action in applying the same disclosure to the online version. The Council concludes that the disclosure was adequate in advising readers of the writer’s connections. Based on the available evidence, the Council is not able to determine with sufficient certainty whether or not reasonable steps were taken to ensure there was no influence on published material.
The Council concludes that the term “research…commissioned” suggests an independent, external evaluation of the program, but the article failed to reveal that it was produced by an employee and this omission created a misleading impression. It also concludes that there was a lack of clarity regarding the nature of the funding relationships between AMES and AMEP which was also misleading. Accordingly, these aspects of the complaint are upheld.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council:
“Publications must take reasonable steps to:
1: Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
8. Ensure that conflicts of interests are avoided or adequately disclosed, and that they do not influence published material.”