The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by The Northern Star in relation to material published on 30 January 2015 reporting the apparent discovery of a discarded syringe at a local sports oval.
The published material consisted of a newsagent display poster “JUNKIE SCUM: PICK UP SYRINGES” and two associated articles published in print and online. The online article was headed “Blood-filled syringe found on junior sports ground” and featured a close-up photograph of what appeared to be a discarded syringe resting among blades of grass. A caption read “Used syringe laying on Local Sports Oval in Lismore. Corner of Magellan and Brewster St”. The print version of the article consisted of a larger version of the same photograph on page one and a prominent headline “Blood-filled syringe a sharp reminder”. A second smaller caption reading “Discarded syringe found on sports ground used by juniors. BEWARE: …” was situated beneath the image. It also included a pointer to an article on page three “Blood-filled syringe found on junior sports ground”.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether the material breached General Principles 1 and 3 of its Standards of Practice which respectively require that a publication take reasonable steps to “ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate…” and are reported with “reasonable fairness and balance”. Council also asked the publication whether it took steps to “avoid causing... substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest”, as required by General Principle 6.
The publication said that the information was brought to its attention after the image was posted on social media. It said the assertion the syringe was “blood-filled” was made in the caption of the social media post. On its examination of a blown-up version of the image, it had surmised there was blood in the syringe. It said it had tried to verify the details in the online post by sending a photographer to the scene. However, the syringe could not be found.
The publication said the report was of significant public interest as it concerned a “pattern of behaviour” which needed to be highlighted to the community because it is a public safety issue. It said a follow-up article it had published, “Readers' outrage at used syringe found at junior sports oval", indicated the issue was of great concern in the local community.
In regard to the terms used in the print poster, the publication said “junkie” was a widely used term. It was not aware that the term was offensive to a large section of the community or to intravenous drug users. It said space considerations meant terms such as “intravenous drug user” were not practical for poster headlines. Although the article does not refer to the owner of the needle as a drug user, the publication said the poster was justified as it considered it would be “highly improbable” that a user for medical purposes would discard a needle in such a way.
The publication said it quickly became aware that the term “Junkie Scum” was contentious and in response, it had published a comment piece five days later in which its editor acknowledged it was “a poorly worded, over-the-top, tabloid reaction” to the front page story and apologised for any offence caused.
The Council considers that the headlines prominently promoted the claim that the syringe was “blood-filled”. It is apparent from the image that this is an exaggeration. At most there appears to be some trace of what might be blood. Council notes that the basis of the report was material taken from a social media source. The publication had adopted the information with little effort to establish the accuracy of the assertion and without qualifying the assertion about the location of the syringe. Similarly, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to provide fairness and balance in the report by not reporting the circumstances in a more qualified way. Accordingly, the Council finds a breach of its Standards in relation to General Principle 1 and General Principle 3.
Council also considers the implication that all syringe users are “junkie scum” was likely to cause substantial offence. Accordingly, the Council finds a breach of its Standards in relation to General Principle 6. In doing so, Council notes and welcomes the publication’s apology in this regard.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the following Standard of Practice 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.
3. Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts.”
6: “Avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.”