The Press Council considered a complaint about an article in WA Today on 9 May 2015 headlined “Bong claims Santa Maria teacher’s job: You’ve got to be toking?” which also appeared on the publication’s associated Twitter and Facebook.
The article referred to a teacher losing her position at a named Catholic girls’ school as the result of a “social media incident”. It suggested this involved the circulation of “a photograph of her holding a bong at a music festival” which it said was “highlighted” by a local radio station’s “Rumour File” segment, and also suggested that a topless photograph of the teacher may have been behind the loss of her position. The article was accompanied by a stock image of a person apparently smoking a bong with a qualifying caption.
The teacher complained that the article's claim that she lost her employment as a result of a photograph of her holding a bong was completely false, was not the reason behind her resignation, and that no such photo exists. She said the article was based on unsubstantiated rumour, but the headline had an unequivocal statement, compounded by the photograph.
The teacher said that although she was not named in the report, the article on Facebook and the identifying details it contained resulted in her being named in comments on the publication’s Facebook feed. She also said the publication revised the article the following day, to include its contact with the Principal, but maintained the false suggestions that a “topless photo” was behind her resignation. She said the alteration to the online article did nothing to remedy the earlier article as it had already been exchanged by “hundreds” of online users.
The teacher complained that the publication of unsubstantiated rumours intruded upon her privacy and caused her substantial distress, especially given the potential to impact significantly on her future employment opportunities within the teaching profession. Neither the intrusion on privacy nor the distress was justified in the public interest.
The publication acknowledged that its story was based on a radio station “Rumour File” segment and its purpose was to highlight the implications of social media use on a person’s professional life.
The publication said it took steps to establish the facts of the teacher’s departure from the school and contacted the Principal. It said when no response was provided it had then contacted Catholic Education Western Australia, and its comment was included in the article. The following day, Catholic Education contacted the publication and the article was updated to include a comment by the Principal that the suggestion that drugs were involved in the teacher’s resignation was “categorically untrue”.
The publication acknowledged the complainant’s concerns, but said the article did not name her and social media impacting on people’s employment was a matter of significant public interest. It said that after learning of the complainant’s concerns, it had removed the article from its Facebook page and revised the online article to remove the photograph and the reference to a “bong” from the headline.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require reasonable steps to ensure: that factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1); is reasonably fair and balanced (General Principle 3); and to correct or take other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading (General Principle 2). They also require reasonable steps to ensure publications avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy and avoid contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principles 5 and 6) .
The Council concludes that drugs played no part in the teacher’s resignation and accepts that no photo of the teacher with a bong or topless exists. It considers that as the article had originated from a radio segment “Rumour File” and the allegations were serious, the publication was required to take greater care to establish the facts. It also considers that naming the school made it likely that the individual could be identified.
In addition, even after the Principal's denials, the publication repeated the allegations the following day and the article remained online for several months without any remedial action, despite the concerns raised in the complaint to the Council. The Council concludes the publication failed to ensure accuracy and fairness in the initial article and subsequent revisions and also failed to provide adequate remedial action. Accordingly, the Council finds a breach of General Principles 1, 2 and 3 of its Standards.
The Council accepts there is a public interest in highlighting the impact of social media on individuals’ professional lives. However, the inaccuracy in the headline and the reporting of unsubstantiated serious allegations intruded upon the teacher’s privacy and caused her significant distress that were not justified by this public interest. Accordingly, the Council also finds a breach of General Principles 5 and 6 of its Standards.
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.
2. Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
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.
5. Avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest
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.”