The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint by John Barnes about a front-page article and an editorial in the Ballarat Courier on 7 June 2011 that focused on a report from the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD).
The article was headed, Ballarat youth crime shock stats, and the first paragraph stated: "Shocking new figures show adolescent crime in Ballarat has nearly doubled in the past five years, with approximately one in four teenagers aged 15 to 17 committing offences". Three other sentences in the report and three in the editorial also included statistics about the proportion of young Ballarat people who had committed offences.
Mr Barnes complained that these statements misinterpreted Victoria Police statistics in the DEECD report. He said the police statistics showed the number of offences committed by young people, not the number or proportion of young people who had committed offences. He said it should have been obvious to the newspaper that the “one in four” proportion which it stated in a very prominent sub-heading as well as in the article itself was so high as to be implausible. He also complained that when he sought a correction from the newspaper it did not do so and did not publish a letter from him explaining the error.
The newspaper said that it had relied on and accurately quoted the interpretation which accompanied the statistics in the DEECD report. It said that it did not publish a correction or Mr Barnes' letter because it had checked with DEECD that the passage which it had quoted from the report was accurate. It also said that the letter inaccurately and unfairly blamed its reporter for the error. After Mr Barnes complained to the Council, the newspaper offered him an opportunity to publish an opinion piece on "youth crime" but he said that the newspaper itself should correct the errors.
The Council has concluded that the headline and article were inaccurate and that the newspaper did not take reasonable steps to ensure their accuracy, especially as they were given such prominence. The DEECD interpretation of the police statistics may not have been accurate and was capable of being misunderstood, but the manifest improbability of one-quarter of young people in Ballarat having committed an offence in a particular year should have prompted a deeper examination of the statistics. Accordingly, this element of the complaint is upheld.
Once Mr Barnes had pointed out the misinterpretation, it should have been readily understood and corrected by the newspaper. Its attempts to check Mr Barnes’ criticisms were insufficiently rigorous to correct its misunderstanding. The need for rigorous checking and rapid correction was heightened by the great prominence of the headline and article and the adverse impact on the reputation of young people in the area. Having failed to correct its error, the newspaper should at least have published Mr Barnes’ letter or sought his agreement to modify it for publication while still conveying his interpretation of the statistics. Accordingly, these aspects of the complaint are also upheld.