The Press Council considered a complaint from Rachael Petrak about an article published in The Sunday Telegraph on 30 July 2017, headed “Mum died from her toddler’s sickness” in print and “Dead mum Imogen Petrak may have caught pneumococcal disease from her child” online.
The article reported on the death of Imogen Petrak, the complainant’s sister-in-law. It began: “A PREGNANT mother who was rushed to hospital with an ear infection and later died after an emergency Caesarean may have caught the deadly pneumococcal disease from her own unvaccinated toddler.” Further on, the article stated: “Ms Petrak’s 17-month-old son … who was not vaccinated, was also unwell in the days leading up to her death. Tests confirmed the infection was pneumococcal type 19F, which is covered by the pneumococcal vaccine … The bacteria can spread between people through infected droplets in the air and by touching an infected person.”
The complainant said the article was incorrect, as Imogen’s son was not ill with pneumococcal disease prior to Imogen’s death and he was not the cause or likely cause of her death. She said that as a result of the article a number of other publishers also reported that Imogen’s son may have caused her death. This had been distressing to the family. The complainant said Imogen’s son might encounter this article in the future and believe he was responsible for her death, which would be especially distressing.
The complainant said information about Imogen’s blood test results and Imogen’s son’s vaccination status was published without the family’s knowledge or consent. She said the hospital assured the family its staff had not passed this information to the publication. She said publishing medical information relating to Imogen and her son was unethical and insensitive, and there was no serious threat to public health or a mandatory disease notification that made such disclosure in the public interest. She said that as the circumstances of Imogen’s death were rare reporting on it did not have the same public interest as more common matters of public health and safety.
The publication said although the print headline could be misleading, it was qualified by the reference in the opening sentence that Imogen “may” have caught the disease from her son, which it said was true at the time. It said senior health sources confirmed that because the bacteria can present itself as a harmless cold, medical authorities were examining the possibility that Imogen’s son may have carried the bacteria and displayed cold-like symptoms, and this might be how Imogen had contracted the disease. The publication said that having confirmed this investigation with a senior health source, it was under no legal obligation to seek the consent of the family to report on the matter.
The publication said the pneumococcal bacteria is very common and is airborne and easy to catch. It said the article concerned serious matters of public safety and health and it was in the public interest to report. The publication said the issue of vaccinations and the possible health risks of unvaccinated children have been of major public importance in Australia and the subject of recent federal government initiatives to encourage parents to vaccinate their children.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure 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 refers adversely to a person, 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 Council’s Standards of Practice also require publications to take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy (General Principle 5), causing or contributing materially to substantial distress (General Principle 6), and publishing material gathered by unfair means (General Principle 7)—unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
The Council considers the print headline “Mum died from her toddler’s sickness” is presented as a statement of fact not qualified in any way, and is inaccurate. Although the publication reportedly relied on a highly-trusted source at the hospital, given the information was obtained from a single source confidential to the publication and the claim was of a highly speculative nature, the Council concludes that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the statement that Imogen “may” have caught the disease from her son was accurate and not misleading, and that it did not present factual material with reasonable fairness and balance. Based on the material provided, reporting that Ms Petrak’s death resulted from the transmission of pneumococcal disease from her child was without factual basis. This was especially so for the print headline, which was not qualified by the word “may”. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principles 1 and 3.
The publication has neither amended or removed the online article, nor published a print correction. Although the publication later indicated it might be willing to write a follow-up article, this would not adequately remedy the significant inaccuracy and unfairness of the article. Given this, the Council concludes that the publication also breached General Principles 2 and 4.
The Council considers that Imogen’s family had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to details of Imogen’s health and her son’s vaccination status. In publishing such information, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on this expectation of privacy. The Council accepts there is a strong public interest in reporting on matters of public health. However, having regard for the unusual medical circumstances surrounding Imogen’s death, the relevance to the public in reporting on this matter was less strong than it might have otherwise been. Given this, the Council concludes that the intrusion on the family’s reasonable expectations of privacy was not sufficiently in the public interest. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principle 5.
The Council also considers that in suggesting that Imogen’s son was the cause—or the likely cause— of her death, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial distress to the complainant’s family, which for the same reasons was not justified by the public interest. Accordingly, the Council concludes the publication breached General Principle 6.
Reliance on whistleblowers and other confidential sources is normal journalistic practice. The Council does not consider the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid publishing material gathered by deceptive or unfair means. Accordingly, the publication did not breach General Principle 7.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication)
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.
5. Avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
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.
7. Avoid publishing material which has been gathered by deceptive or unfair means, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.