The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published in The Herald Sun headed “Out-of-school sex ed” in print on 22 February 2022. The article reported on the sexual abuse of a minor by his then teacher at a Victorian school in the mid-to-late 1990s.
The sub-headline of the article stated, “Female teacher admits violating boys”. The article went on to report that the teacher “pleaded guilty in the County Court on Friday to several counts of sexual penetration of a child under 16.” It also reported that the teacher “taught one victim how to perform sexual acts,” and said, “She later showed him how to put on a condom.”
In response to a complaint received, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether the headline in particular complied with the Council’s Standards of Practice which require publications to ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3); and to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health and safety, without sufficient justification in the public interest (General Principle 6).
The Council noted that the complaint raised concerns that the headline was an unfair description of the reported sexual abuse of a child by his teacher. The Council also noted that the complaint raised concerns that the headline and its attitude maybe harmful to sexual abuse survivors, as it may minimise the perception of harm done by sexual abusers.
In response, the publication said the reference to “sex ed” in the headline was underpinned by two paragraphs in the story which outline how the perpetrator taught one of her victims how to perform sexual acts. It said this ‘teaching’ formed a prominent part of the evidence of the court case reported on, and pertained directly to the perpetrator’s actions, in that she had control over the students and guided them through the abuse. The publication also pointed to the public interest in reporting instances of child sexual abuse, and the deterrent potential of reporting on abuse cases prominently. The publication denied the possibility that the headline could be harmful to survivors of abuse.
The Council notes the limitations of headlines to reflect the tenor of an article. However, the Council also notes that headlines must nonetheless comply with the Council’s Standards of Practice. In this instance, the Council considers the description of the reported child sexual abuse matters as ‘sex-ed’ was an unfair characterisation of the reported events. The Council considers that readers could interpret the headline as implying that the child sexual abuse had some connection to the victim’s school curriculum; or that the teacher’s offences were not sufficiently serious. Accordingly, the Council considers the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material was presented with reasonable fairness and balance in breach of General Principle 3.
The Council notes the publication’s comments concerning how the perpetrator ‘taught’ the victim how to perform sexual acts. However, the Council considers that describing such acts as ‘sex-ed’ particularly when the reported abuse concerned a teacher student relationship, trivialises the seriousness of the conduct and potentially diminishes the reported emotional impact on the student.
The Council considers that in describing the reported child sexual abuse as ‘sex-ed’, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid contributing to substantial prejudice and that there was not sufficient public interest justifying doing so. Accordingly, the Council concludes that the article breached General Principle 6.
Relevant Council Standards
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council:
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
(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.”