The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published by news.com.au on 9 March 2017, headed “Smartphone footage captures Brazilian transgender woman pleading for help prior to being beaten to death”.
An embedded video appeared below the headline with the caption “Transgender woman beaten on the streets of Brazil”. The 32-second video began automatically, and with a four-second warning which read: “WARNING: The following images and/or content may be disturbing/offensive to some viewers. Viewer discretion is strongly advised.”
The video began by showing two men standing near a woman with her back to the camera sitting on a rough pavement outside a building. The woman was wearing shorts and nearly naked on the upper part of her body, with only a small remnant of torn clothing remaining, which she repeatedly tried to pull down to cover herself. The men appear to be talking to her in a foreign language, directing her to get into a wheelbarrow. They kick her in the shoulder and back, forcefully pushing her into the side of the wheelbarrow, and repeatedly strike her on the head with shoes.
The accompanying article began with the emboldened text: “WARNING: Graphic images”; “HARROWING footage has emerged of a transgender woman begging for her life before beaten to death”. It said “the video shows the victim being dragged from her home and beaten by men with … planks of wood” and the men “fling her into a wheelbarrow before taking her to a side street where she was allegedly then murdered”, but the embedded video did not feature these parts of the attack.
The article said much of the ordeal was filmed on a smartphone, that the footage was released in an effort to track down her killers, and that another publication had reported that the video was first circulated among LGBT groups and had helped identify some suspects. It said the murder was the latest in a long series of murders and attacks on transgender people in Latin America and according to a named source, the victim “was the fifth transgender person to be murdered last month” in Brazil. It said: “Globally, one transgender person is murdered every 3 days and that more than 2000 transgender people were unlawfully killed between 2008 and 2015, of these 88 were in Brazil alone.”
The article featured four photographs, one a close-up of the victim showing her in extreme distress. They were captioned: “Dandara dos Santos is beaten moments before she was murdered by transphobic thugs...”; “Dandara dos Santos lies, bloodied, in the street...”; “She is kicked in the face by one of the men...”; and “The woman is then flung into a wheelbarrow and taken away where she was allegedly murdered….”
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether the material breached its Standards of Practice, in particular General Principle 6, requiring publications to take reasonable steps to ensure they avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice or risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
The publication said it provided multiple warnings to its audience about the graphic nature of the content, including at the beginning of the video and article in bold text. It said these warnings demonstrated it had taken appropriate steps to inform readers that the content was graphic and may distress some people, and readers could make their own independent decisions about whether to view it.
The publication said it considered there was significant public interest in reporting on the serious issue of violence towards transgender people, not only in Brazil but in Australia and worldwide, as well as a public interest in providing access to reliable information concerning public safety, exposing crime and demonstrating the due administration of justice, which might assist with the prevention of more such crimes in future. It said highlighting such attacks on transgender victims could only be done effectively by showing the video.
The Press Council considers the content of the article, and particularly the video, to be substantially distressing. The warnings provided before the video played, and summary of the video in the opening text, amounted to an adequate warning of the graphic nature of the video.
The Council considers there is a public interest in reporting on the serious issue of violence towards transgender people worldwide and in providing access to reliable information demonstrating the due administration of justice. The material shown is distressing, but the most violent footage was not included. On balance, the Council concludes that the publication took reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial offence, distress and prejudice, given the public interest involved.
However, the Council notes that the video played automatically. It also noted that the wording of the warning at the beginning of the video used only generic language, which would not have been a sufficient in itself in the absence of the further warnings contained in the text. Great care needs to be exercised by publications to ensure the true nature of the material is described in the warning, and that the audience is provided with a properly informed and practically exercisable choice.
Relevant Council Standards
This adjudication applies the following General Principle of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
6. Avoid causing or contributing materiality to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.