The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by a print article published in the Southern Free Times headed “Very near tragedy” on 23 March 2017.
The article concerned a man who was “reported missing” and later “found by State Emergency Service (SES) volunteers in dense bushland … having spent the night at the location”. It reported the publication understood that “the man inflicted self-harm in an apparent suicide attempt and at some point fell from a height after wandering into the bush…” The publication further reported he had “told his partner on Friday morning he was leaving for work as usual but he failed to show up, with work colleagues and his partner becoming concerned for his welfare when he was uncontactable during the morning and around lunchtime”. It then reported that his “condition was unknown at the time of printing and family members declined to comment”.
The rest of the article questioned whether the incident was associated with the man’s employment and whether “[his] behaviour may have been prompted by work-related stress stemming from the current workplace culture…”
The complainant, the daughter of the man, said the article was inaccurate or misleading in reporting that “the man told his partner on Friday morning he was leaving for work as usual” as this did not happen and no member of the family told anyone this. Moreover, the complainant said the implication that workplace issues were the cause of the incident was inaccurate and that other issues were involved.
The complainant said her sister, also the man’s daughter, was contacted by the publication prior to publication of the article and she specifically said she did not want any article published or any details or personal information to be reported. She said the publication published an article against their express wishes and included personal information such as her father’s suburb of residence and where the incident happened, as well as where he worked. She said even though his name was not mentioned, her father was effectively identified in the small community and those who did not know it was a suicide attempt now would.
The publication said the article was at least the fourth in a series reporting on detailed accounts from family members of both past and present employees of the same employer about mental health concerns associated with bullying and intimidation. The publication said it was very familiar with reporting on mental health concerns associated with employment stress. It said it was alerted to this instance by a family member of another colleague with the same employer, and confirmed the details reported with other reliable sources, including the man’s colleagues as well as members of the search party who said the man himself had associated the incident with work.
It said it exercised discretion and sensitivity in omitting from the article the man’s name, as requested by his daughter, as well as further details it had. It also did not publish the article on the front page or online in order to minimise the impact of the story on the family and avoid online and social media commentary and speculation. However, it accepted that, in hindsight, the reference to the man inflicting self-harm could have been worded more appropriately given the potential impact on his family.
It said it stood by the decision to publish the article, given the significant public interest involved. The article followed previous stories and previous allegations about serious and widespread mistreatment at the same place of employment. Its motivation was to expose this and pressure the employer to change its management practices, as well as to acknowledge the newsworthiness of the search itself, which involved many people who put their own safety at risk. It said the feedback it has received since publication of the series of articles, especially from family members of employees of the same employer, has been overwhelmingly positive and encouraging.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require that publications take reasonable steps to ensure that factual material is accurate and not misleading and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion (General Principle 1) and to provide corrective remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading (General Principle 2), avoid intruding on a person's reasonable expectations of privacy (General Principle 5) or causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety (General Principle 6)—unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
In addition, Specific Standards on the Coverage of Suicide 3 and 4 require that in deciding whether to report a suicide—which includes apparent suicide attempts—and disclose the name of the person, consideration should be given to whether clear and informed consent has been provided by appropriate relatives or close friends, and whether such reporting is clearly in the public interest. Further, Suicide Standard 6 requires that reports should not sensationalise, glamorise, trivialise or stigmatise suicides, and Suicide Standard 7 requires that reports of suicide should not be given undue prominence and great care should be taken to avoid causing unnecessary harm or hurt to people who have been affected by suicide, which requires special sensitivity and moderation in both news gathering and reporting.
The Council recognises there can be substantial public benefit in reporting on suicide, and in this instance accepts that the publication was well-intentioned.
However, as the complainant’s sister expressly asked the publication not to report on the incident, there was no clear and informed consent from the man’s family. In these circumstances, the public interest had to be strong enough to report the incident as a suicide attempt notwithstanding the lack of consent. The Council considers the public interest here did not extend to reporting on this individual instance in as explicit a manner as occurred. Accordingly, the Council concludes that the publication breached Suicide Standard 3 in this respect.
The Council notes that the publication did not identify the man, at least not by name, and accepts that the publication complied with the complainant’s sister’s request in this respect. Accordingly, the Council concludes that the publication did not breach Suicide Standard 4.
The Council also considers that the publication did not sensationalise, glamorise, trivialise or stigmatise suicide in the article. Accordingly, the Council concludes that the publication did not breach Suicide Standard 6. Nor was the article published with undue prominence or unnecessarily explicit headlines or images, but rather the publication exercised sensitivity and moderation in electing not to report on the incident on the front page or online. Accordingly, the Council concludes that the publication did not breach Suicide Standard 7.
Given its conclusions on other aspects of the complaint, the Council considers it unnecessary to reach conclusions in relation to General Principles 1, 2, 5 and 6.
Note: If you or someone close to you requires personal assistance, please contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.
Relevant Council Standards
This Adjudication applies the following Standards of Practice of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
General Principle 1 – Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
General Principle 2 – Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
General Principle 5 – Avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
General Principle 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.
This Adjudication also applies the following Specific Standards on Coverage of Suicide.
Specific Standard 3 – In deciding whether to report an individual instance of suicide, consideration should be given to whether at least one of the following criteria is satisfied:
(a) clear and informed consent has been provided by appropriate relatives or close friends; or
(b) reporting the death as suicide is clearly in the public interest.
Specific Standard 4 – In deciding whether also to report the identity of the person who has died by suicide, account should be taken of whether at least one of the following criteria is satisfied:
(a) clear and informed consent has been provided by appropriate relatives or close friends; or
(b) identification is clearly in the public interest.
Specific Standard 5 – The method and location of a suicide should not be described in detail (e.g., a particular drug or cliff) unless the public interest in doing so clearly outweighs the risk, if any, of causing further suicides. This applies especially to methods or locations which may not be well known by people contemplating suicide.
Specific Standard 6 – Reports should not sensationalise, glamorise or trivialise suicides. They should not inappropriately stigmatise suicides or people involved in them. But this does not preclude responsible description or discussion of the impacts, even if they are severely adverse, on people, organisations or communities. Where appropriate, underlying causes such as mental illness should be mentioned.
Specific Standard 7 – Reports of suicide should not be given undue prominence, especially by unnecessarily explicit headlines or images. Great care should be taken to avoid causing unnecessary harm or hurt to people who have attempted suicide or to relatives and other people who have been affected by a suicide or attempted suicide. This requires special sensitivity and moderation in both gathering and reporting news.
View Relevant Council Standards