The Press Council considered a complaint from a teacher about an article published in the Gladstone Observer headed “Pregnant woman hit by shot put at Calliope” online on 18 September 2020. The article reported on an incident at Calliope State High School in which the complainant was hit by a shot put. It reported her age, that she was pregnant and the stage of pregnancy reached. The article was subsequently updated to report statements by a Queensland Ambulance spokesman, Department of Education spokeswoman and a Central Queensland Hospital and Health Service spokeswoman who said that the woman had been discharged from Hospital.
The complainant said that reporting she was pregnant and the stage of her pregnancy caused her significant anxiety and distress, given she had not at the time announced her pregnancy to any family, friends or work colleagues. She said that, due to her medical history regarding pregnancy, her husband and herself had decided to not make this public until after the 12-week tests. The complainant also said that only she, her husband, the Deputy Principal of the School, her doctors and ambulance officers knew of her pregnancy status before the article appeared.
The complainant said that her pregnancy was personal and very private to her and she did not want it made public at that point. She said that, whilst she was not named in the article, the details given were sufficient for the community to easily identify her and for her pregnancy to be common knowledge. She said that there was no justification for publication of this personal information in the article.
The complainant said that the article appeared online approximately 10-15 minutes after the phone call was made to the ambulance. She said that the publication made no contact with her, her family or the school to ascertain any details prior to the article being published. The complainant said she could only infer that the publication had obtained this information, which was provided to the ambulance solely for her medical treatment, from a scanner of emergency services communications. The complainant said the publication had no right to use her personal health information in the article without her consent.
The complainant said that after the article was published, she discussed her concerns with the publication’s editor. However, the complainant was not satisfied, based on the publication’s response, that it had undertaken sufficient steps to prevent a similar incident from occurring in the future, and so made a complaint to the Council.
The publication said the journalist believed the information about the complainant’s pregnancy was provided by a Queensland Ambulance spokesperson and it was attributed to that source in the article. The publication said that the journalist would have made the initial call to the Queensland Ambulance spokesman to get information for the initial article and the subsequent updates to it. The publication said it could not confirm whether the journalist had obtained that information from scanning emergency services communications, but accepted that the newsroom did have the ability to do so.
The publication said that the editor spoke to the complainant after the article was published and apologised to her for any distress the article had unintentionally caused her.
The publication said that with the benefit of hindsight, the reporting on the complainant’s pregnancy, although attributed to a Queensland Ambulance spokesman, should not have been included in the article. Had it been aware of the full circumstances regarding her pregnancy, it would have handled its coverage of the incident more sensitively. The publication also said it had since amended the online article to remove all references to the complainant’s pregnancy.
Although the publication maintained it was in the public interest to report the accident and the complainant’s pregnancy due to the risks to health and safety involved, it said that it would be more aware of the factors to be considered in reporting on pregnancy in future.
The relevant Council Standards of Practice require publications to take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy (General Principle 5), causing or contributing materially to substantially distress or risk to health or safety (General Principle 6), or publishing material gathered by unfair means (General Principle 7) – unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
The Council welcomes the publication’s apology to the complainant and its indication that that it will take greater care in reporting on pregnancy in the future. However, the Council considers that the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy and that it was her own decision as to when she made it known that she was pregnant. The Council also considers that the premature public reporting of her pregnancy would be substantially distressing to any person in her situation. The fact that the article attributed the information to a Queensland Ambulance spokesman did not alter the complainant’s reasonable expectation of privacy nor the likelihood of distress. The Council considers there was no sufficient public interest to justify reporting against the complainant’s reasonable expectations of privacy or in causing her substantial distress. Accordingly, the Council concludes that the publication breached General Principles 5 and 6.
As to General Principle 7, the Council is unable to conclude that an emergency scanner had in fact been used to obtain the information and the Council does not conclude that General Principle 7 was breached in this respect. The Council notes that it should not be assumed that use of all information obtained from a scanner would necessarily be unfair, but cautions publications who may obtain information from a scanner to verify that information from an appropriately reliable source.
Relevant Council Standards:
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
“Publications must take reasonable steps to:
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.
7. Avoid publishing material which has been gathered by deceptive or unfair means, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.”