The Press Council considered a complaint from David Gallagher about a front page article in The Sun-Herald on 9 July 2017 headed “The deadly hidden disorder inside our university colleges”, featuring a large photograph of the complainant’s deceased daughter and her mother. The full article began on page eight, headed “Deadly conditions hidden inside unis”, followed by the subheading: “Students living on campus could be heading into a culture that makes eating disorders worse…” The article was also published online, headed “The deadly hidden disorder inside our universities”.
The article referred to the death of the complainant’s daughter, Rebecca Gallagher, in June 2016. It stated that she “had died from complications believed to be associated with anorexia nervosa”. It said she was a resident at a particular college and described the circumstances in which she was found dead inside her dormitory. It said Rebecca’s death notice asked that donations be made to a charity supporting those suffering from eating disorders. The article included comments from various people “about the impact of eating disorders in university college settings”, including from a university researcher who “said communal living, rigid meal times, and the college culture of sexual objectification could exacerbate eating disorders”. It included comments from some female university students about their experiences with college culture and its effect on their dieting and body image. The article also included the names and occupations of Rebecca’s parents and the region in which they worked. It said a “NSW Police spokeswoman said a report was being prepared for the coroner”, and concluded with support contact details for anyone “experiencing an eating disorder or body image concerns”.
The complainant said the article was published on the eve of his daughter’s birthday without regard to the distress it would cause his family, and despite their wish to have details identifying Rebecca withheld. The complainant said this intensified and prolonged the family’s grieving. He said the inclusion of details identifying him and Rebecca’s mother—together with the prominent photograph—intruded on their privacy. The complainant also said by including this information, and adding to the online version of the article that “the family [… was] contacted before publishing this story”, misleadingly suggested they cooperated in the publication of the article and agreed with the account of Rebecca’s death and its association with her college attendance. Moreover, the publication asserted the cause of death before the coroner had made a finding in relation to this.
In response, the publication said the article was in the public interest on a subject of health and safety, and Rebecca’s tragic death was reported in the context of a significant problem of eating disorders in Australian university settings. It said the circumstances of Rebecca’s death were corroborated by authorities at the College, those who first found her body, police, and multiple friends. It also said that prior to publication it read the article to the complainant’s lawyer and was informed that while the family would prefer the article not be published, the accuracy of the factual material was largely undisputed. The publication said the inclusion of Rebecca’s parents’ names and occupations was to outline her background and give a sense of her life. It said the article did not include quotes from her parents and the phrase the “family was contacted” in the online article was not intended to imply cooperation. It said this was deeply regrettable, as was publishing the article on the eve of Rebecca’s birthday. It apologised for the distress this caused the family.
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, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or an omission of key facts (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 publications to take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy (General Principle 5) and causing or contributing materially to substantial offence and distress (General Principle 6), without sufficient justification in the public interest.
The Council notes the uncertainty regarding the cause of Rebecca Gallagher’s death, given there is no coronial finding at this time. However, it accepts that the publication sought confirmation from the College, the police and other sources concerning the cause of her death. In such circumstances, the Council is not satisfied the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the presentation of factual material was accurate and fair in this respect. Accordingly, the publication did not breach General Principles 1 and 3 in this respect. For the same reasons, General Principles 2 and 4 were not breached.
However, the addition of the words “the family [… was] contacted before publishing this story” to the online article did misleadingly suggest the family had cooperated with the publication. Accordingly, the publication did breach General Principle 1. Given the publication was aware of the complainant’s concern in relation to this, General Principle 2 was also breached.
The Council notes the public interest in reporting matters of public health and safety; for instance, in exposing potential risk factors for young university college students. However, the publication was aware of the complainant’s wish that the article not be published. The Council considers that the complainant and Rebecca’s mother had a reasonable expectation of privacy and that the details relating to them would not be published. As the publication did not take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on the complainant’s reasonable expectations of privacy, and there was no public interest justifying this, the publication breached General Principle 5.
The Council notes that the publication of the article occurred on the eve of Rebecca’s birthday, a year after her death. The Council accepts that this exacerbated the complainant’s distress, as did the inclusion of details relating to him and Rebecca’s mother. The statement in the online article that the family was contacted prior to publication implied they cooperated with the publication. This would also have exacerbated their distress. In such circumstances, the Council concludes that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial distress to the complainant and his family, without sufficient public interest justifying this. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principle 6.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication)
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
- Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
- Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
- 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.