GERARD AND CLAIRE RUSHTON AGAINST ASHBURTON GUARDIAN

Case Number: 2373

Council Meeting: MARCH 2014

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Ashburton Guardian

Ruling Categories: Privacy
Tragedies, Offensive Handling of
Sensationalism
Behaviour of Journalists

The Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Gerard and Claire Rushton against the Ashburton Guardian.

Background
The Rushtons' daughter Courtenay died very suddenly from meningococcal disease on January 3. Her death was reported in the Ashburton Guardian on two occasions - the first being January 7 and the second January 8 (the day of Courtenay's funeral).

The paper's first article was noted on the front page without naming the teenager, with a follow-up story on page 3 outlining her death from suspected meningococcal disease and providing facts about the disease and its symptoms. Canterbury Medical Officer of Health Dr Humphreys stated that diagnosis was not confirmed and that family members had been treated with antibiotics and were no risk to anybody.

On January 8, the day of Courtenay's funeral, a second article was published providing more details and citing information from the family's statement, along with a photo provided by them. Again, Dr Humphreys was quoted as saying it was important to raise awareness and make sure people had information in perspective. He reiterated that the family were not at risk themselves or of passing infection to others. He stressed that the family had done the right things, including ensuring all vaccinations recommended and getting swift treatment when Courtenay became ill.

The Rushtons, who had asked to be given privacy and time to grieve as was stated in the article on January 8, wrote to the editor to complain about their deep feelings of invasion of privacy while they were suffering immense grief and trauma. They stated that the Ashburton Guardian's reporter and the editor himself had been informed that the family requested time to grieve, but would talk to the Ashburton Guardian 'in the fullness of time'. They cited the Press Council's principle that 'those suffering from trauma or grief call for special consideration' and awaited the paper's reply.

The editor replied at length, offering sincere condolences; acknowledging the grief of the family having gone through a loss himself recently, and claiming that he took any reporting about loss of life extremely seriously. One of his reporters had been made aware of Courtenay's death through 'golfing connections'. He referred to personal connections between his chief reporter and the Rushtons' son and acknowledged that she had 'contacted your son to give him a heads up' that the paper and other media would be interested as the disease was notifiable and infectious. The chief reporter was told to deal with a family media person, Mr Storrier. The editor claimed that this was the 'only contact we have had with any member of your family and we have consistently respected your wish for privacy'.

Mr Storrier then contacted the editor to request that the news be kept out of the paper until the death notice was run. The editor agreed to hold any story until the Monday (6 January). He explained that this agreement was risky because of pressure from other media to break the story. Despite Courtenay’s death notice running on the Monday, the editor instructed his reporters not to publish until the Tuesday. On contacting the Canterbury District Health Board, the paper's health reporter was told that the Medical Officer of Health wanted to get the word out that the family had been 'vaccinated' and there was no wider danger to the community. He said they had made no further contact with family members, despite pressure from affiliated APNZ papers to do so. He commented that the paper had decided not to cover the funeral out of respect for the family. The above, stated the editor, showed that 'we have taken this principle extremely serious, and some media colleagues will argue that we have made too many concessions'. He explained that a person in the Ashburton community had died of a contagious and notifiable disease and the paper's role was to inform that community.

The Complaint
Dissatisfied with the editor's response, the Rushtons contacted the Press Council to lay a complaint. They stated that the 'golfing connections' referral and subsequent paragraph in the editor's response was factually incorrect; that the chief reporter had contacted their son on January 2, before Courtenay died. The son had declined to comment. The chief reporter had then visited him at his home on 4 January; rang him later that day, and 'rang and texted him on numerous occasions'. Hence, this was at variance with the editor's claim that they had had no further contact with the family after the initial contact by the chief reporter.

Further, the Rushtons stated that the editor had told Mr Storrier that only 'a small sidebar referring to the death' would be published, but there had been two stories, both signalled on the front page. They had been contacted by media from throughout New Zealand. They did not accept that the story was already gaining media attention, stating that this was because the Ashburton Guardian had broken the story. While they recognised that the paper might have a role to inform the community in the circumstances, the paper's two articles, the naming of the family and the publication of a photo of their daughter on the day of the funeral had caused them 'considerable trauma and grief'. They claimed the paper's action was 'morally insensitive'; that the chief reporter had exploited a personal relationship to gain information for the story and that the editor had broken his word on doing only a small three liner.

The Newspaper's Response
The editor once again acknowledged the family's loss and grief and conveyed sympathies. He then laid out his understanding of the timeline, now recognising that their chief reporter had contacted the Rushtons' son on two occasions and he had also rung her back declining to talk about the situation. He reiterated his claim that the paper had exercised considerable restraint in deciding what and when to publish, noted that Mr Storrier had not raised 'any objection to our proceeding with the article' on Tuesday and stating throughout that after the initial contacts, the paper had made no attempt to contact the family. Their second story and photo had been published only after the Rushton family had issued a press release. He concluded that the paper had 'acted professionally and with sensitivity throughout'.

In their final response, the family noted discrepancies between the first response from the paper and its final (over the number of contacts) and contradictions in the claim that the paper had a role to inform the community, but they had known that the family were not at risk themselves and neither was the community. They were appalled at the use of 'information or gossip [gained] from a golf course'. They still felt that their grief and trauma should have led the paper not to publish, or to publish a very small story, not two, both signalled on the front page and one containing their daughter's photo.

Discussion
The Press Council extends its sincere sympathy to the Rushton family in what has obviously been a situation of profound distress and trauma. Their desire to have the story covered minimally if at all is perfectly understandable. They are correct that there were discrepancies between the two responses of the paper over the number of times it had made contact with the family.

However, the paper's claim that it had a responsibility to notify the community both of the death, and of the safety of the wider family and community, is accepted. This is not a large community; Courtenay's illness and subsequent death would have been quite widely known and the causes of it speculated on. Despite the lack of definite diagnosis in the first article, the paper was wise to publish the views of the Medical Officer of Health and could hardly have done so without referring to the illness and death of a member of the community. The information supplied by the family, including Courtenay's photo, were legitimately used in the follow-up story. Events like this are shocking in any community, and especially in smaller rural ones. The Press Council accepts the editor's account of having done all he could to minimise intrusion by the paper following Courtenay's death, and outside initial contacts by the chief reporter who knew the Rushtons' son, limited its contact to the family spokesperson, Mr Storrier, who did not express concern about the publishing of the second story.

One aspect of this complaint that deserves comment, too, is the pressure placed on editors who are part of a larger consortium, to investigate and publish stories that happen in a local community. The editor of the Ashburton Guardian felt he had been placed under considerable pressure to break the story earlier, and it is to his credit that he regarded the views of the family to the extent that he did, and did not break the story earlier nor report on Courtenay's funeral. That is responsible editorial conduct but could have rebounded on him in a wider consortium.

The Press Council extends its sympathy once again to the Rushtons, but is unable to uphold the complaint.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Chris Darlow, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, John Roughan, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.