The Press Council considered a complaint by Michelle Box about an article headed “The mysterious and 'horrible' death of Sabrina Bremer” in The Northern Star online on 18 August 2016.
The article concerned the murder of a woman who had been reported missing by her 15-year-old daughter, and whose burned body was found at the side of a road in a remote area of northern NSW. The article was updated several times after its initial publication. An update at 8.30am the next day, which has since been deleted, reported: “IT’s understood the woman was tied up to the tree when set alight and, as she decomposed and the rope broke, her body rolled down the roadside embankment”. At 1.45pm, the article was again updated to identify the woman by name, age and residential area.
The complainant—the victim’s cousin who acted on behalf of the extended family—said the reporting of what was claimed to have happened to the victim caused the family serious distress, and that police had later indicated the reporting was incorrect. She said the article was gratuitous and deprived the deceased of dignity and respect. She said such details should not have been reported as fact without being verified, and even then should not have been published without consideration of the victim’s family.
The publication said the article was written by a reporter from a related publication and published there before it was republished on the publication’s own website without editorial checking. It said the report of what happened to the victim was obtained from interviews with two nearby residents and should have quoted them rather than reporting as fact. It said there had been significant speculation about what occurred, much of which was not included in the article. It acknowledged that at a later press conference police refuted the residents’ claims. It said the article on the related publication’s website had been updated but, due to a technical error, this failed to occur with the article on its own website. The publication apologised to the complainant for the error and said that during the Council’s complaints process the residents’ claims were removed from online and the reporter counselled.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require that publications take reasonable steps to ensure that factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1) and presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3). If the material is significantly inaccurate or misleading, or not reasonably fair and balanced, publications must take reasonable steps to provide adequate remedial action or an opportunity for a response to be published (General Principles 2 and 4).
The Standards of Practice also require that publications take reasonable steps to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or to a substantial risk to health or safety (General Principle 6), unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
The Council concludes that in reporting as fact the unverified residents’ claims, which later proved to be false, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the article was accurate and not misleading. The Council also considers that in reporting the death in significant detail, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial distress, particularly to the family, and that the public interest did not justify such detail. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principles 1 and 6.
The Council considers that the inaccuracy was substantial and concludes that, due to the technical error in updating the website, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to correct the accuracy with appropriate promptness, even though the material was ultimately deleted. Accordingly, the publication also breached General Principle 2.
Given this, the Council considers it unnecessary to reach conclusions as to General Principles 3 and 4.
Relevant Council Standards
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
1. Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
2. Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
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.
4. Ensure that where material refers adversely to a person, a fair opportunity is given for subsequent publication of a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3.
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.