The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint about an article entitled “Autism support group launched” in the Milton Ulladulla Times on 27 June 2012. Based on material supplied by a woman who co-founded the group with another woman, it reported in detail on the support group's aims and described a named child of the second woman as being “autistic”.
The parents of the child complained that the newspaper had not checked with them whether their child was autistic or sought their consent to name their son. They said that it was too early to be sure of their son’s condition and in any event there was no justification for reporting about his condition without their consent. They said that as the mother has worked professionally in the disabilities field for many years her association with the group did not imply her child had autism.
The newspaper replied that it had published the article in good faith, relying on the source who had described herself as a "close friend" of the child's mother. They said the mother had previously been identified publicly as the "front-person" for an autism fund-raiser (including a picture in which she and her children appeared) and she had not previously said her child should not be reported as autistic.
The Press Council emphasises that publications must take special care to ensure that medical information is correct before they publish it and that they are not unjustifiably breaching privacy. Where a child is involved, they must also ensure that they have the consent of a parent or guardian, except in the very rare circumstances where the breach of privacy might be justified as in the public interest. There was clearly no such public interest in this instance.
The earlier publicity about the fundraiser did not state or imply that the child was autistic or that he could be reported as such. It was not appropriate for the newspaper to publish the assertion without contacting the parents directly to confirm it and obtaining their specific consent to publish it. As the newspaper did not obtain such clarification and consent, the complaint against it is upheld.
After publication, the newspaper learned of the parents’ concern and removed the article from its website. It also offered a personal apology, a published “clarification” and a review of its relevant editorial processes but said there had been no “wrongdoing” on its part. The Council understands why the parents believed that the newspaper still did not accept the seriousness of its error and that the offers were not sufficient to remedy the consequences. The Council also recognises that the newspaper intended to support a community initiative, not to breach a child’s privacy and cause distress, and that the claim of “no wrongdoing” was intended to convey that it had acted in good faith, not to suggest no failure on its part.
Relevant Council Standards
(not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies part of the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced…” and General Principle 4: “News and comment should be presented … with respect for the privacy and sensibilities of individuals. However, the right to privacy should not be interpreted as preventing publication of matters of public record or obvious or significant public interest.”