The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published in The Courier-Mail online on 31 March 2016, headed “Mother, son found dead beneath cliff at Maroubra".
The article reported on an apparent murder-suicide by a 25-year-old mother and her two-year-old son in Maroubra NSW. It was accompanied by several photographs identifying the scene, and referred to the method and location of the incident and extracts from an apparent suicide note. It said the mother “described killing herself and [her son] as the ‘bravest thing’ she had ever done” and quoted a “family member [who] also paid tribute” as saying ‘People say what a coward, but I say how brave was that …’”.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether the material breached General Principal 6 of its Standards which requires that reasonable steps be taken to 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, and Coverage of Suicide Standards 5, which requires that the method and location of the suicide not be described in detail, unless the public interest in doing so clearly outweighs the risk, if any, of causing further suicides.
The publication said that the report was syndicated from another related publication. Due to the automation involved the publication had no input into compiling the article and the published article could only be changed by alteration to the source article. On being contacted by the Council, it contacted the originating publication and arranged to alter the headline to remove reference to “beneath cliff”, the tribute referring to the act being “brave” and reference to the suicide note.
The publication said it had no intention to breach either Standard. As the article concerned an apparent murder-suicide, reporting on the murder aspect was in the public interest and outweighed any substantial offence or distress, or risk to health and safety which may otherwise have been in breach of General Principle 6. As to the Coverage of Suicide Standard, it said there was a real question of whether the Standard should apply to murder-suicide reporting as this might prevent proper reporting of murder.
The Press Council notes that the publisher of syndicated material is responsible for the content of that material in the same way as the material that publisher originates.
The Council considers that the details of the method, the precise location, the suicide note and the tribute to the mother being “brave” were likely to cause or contribute materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety. While there was a public interest in reporting the apparent murder-suicide, it could have been reported without including such details. The Council concludes that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid breaching General Principle 6.
As to Coverage of Suicide Standard 5, the Council considers that reporting the details of the method, the precise location, the suicide note and the tribute to the mother being “brave” gave rise to a risk of further suicides. The apparent murder-suicide could have been reported without these details. The public interest in reporting these details did not outweigh the risk of causing further suicides. The Council concludes the publication breached Coverage of Suicide Standard 5 is this respect.
The Council acknowledges that the publication took prompt action to have the article altered after being contacted by the Council.
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Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
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 Coverage of Suicide Standards:
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.