MARK BECKETT AGAINST OTAGO DAILY TIMES

Case Number: 2521

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2016

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: Otago Daily Times

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Balance, Lack Of
Photographs
Privacy

Overview

On June 3, 2016 a road accident occurred north of Dunedin, involving up to 5 cars and resulting in one dead and six injured. Mark Beckett complains that theOtago Daily Times (ODT) published online incorrect and unbalanced information about the accident.

The complaint is not upheld.

The Complaint

Mark Beckett complains that on line reporting by the ODT led family and friends to “believe we were fatally injured. No text was included that reassured viewers and theODT did not ascertain that …family had been contacted” before publishing the information. It “led viewers to believe the vehicle pictured was at fault, and that the fatality occurred in the vehicles shown.” Photographs could be enlarged to enable number plates to be read and distinctive hot rod vehicles to be identified. A scene photograph of an emergency vehicle only was published on theODT Facebook page, but this linked to the more graphic shots on the ODTwebsite of vehicles involved in the crash.

The complainant believes the reporter and photographer gained informal access behind the Police cordon to the scene, and were requested to leave by the Police. The complainant also notes that other media outlets covered the incident but did not identify the vehicles. Rather than waiting for official Police statements on what had occurred, theODT used other emergency services as a source. The complainant also believes the editor failed to respond adequately to his attempts to communicate about his complaint.

The Response

The ODT editor says he initially discussed the issues at some length with Mr Beckett, and subsequently responded fully in writing to the complaint.

On access to the accident, the editor explains that to avoid traffic delays the reporter and photographer travelled to the scene via a side road, which was not cordoned. TheODT photographer asked emergency services personnel if he could go closer and was accompanied to the site. After several photographs were taken a Police officer asked him to leave, which he immediately did. An initial report including a photograph was put on the ODT website. Dunedin based staff later added to the report confirming “the accident was a fatality, once St John ambulance had verified that fact.” The editor says it is not unusual for media to be escorted into a cordoned area if permission is given at the scene; and Police are not the only source of information for journalists.

The editor says photos published on the website were general scene shots; the ODT took care to exclude the victim’s vehicle; and did not attribute blame. The editor believes the significantly zoomed in version of the photograph supplied by Mr Beckett in support of his complaint makes the license plate barely readable, and most visitors to the ODT site would not have done this.

The ODT apologises to Mr Becket and his family if the coverage caused them distress. He notes that theODT is well aware of the sensitive and distressing nature of road accidents and treats them with care. However “we also have an obligation to keep our readers up to date with the latest events, particularly in the event of an accident where a closed road might impact on their ability to travel.” The editor says, “We did not sensationalise the story, but instead covered the facts”.

The Decision


The complainant cites Press Council principles of accuracy, fairness and balance, photographs and graphics, and privacy. Mr Beckett also complains of the way in which theODT team gained close access to the accident site.

It is possible for different readers to interpret in a number of ways the first report and photographs of the accident on theODT website. It is most unfortunate if Mr Beckett’s family were caused undue concern by it at the time. TheODT has acknowledged this and apologised to Mr Beckett for any distress caused.

This online report of this major road accident was filed quickly and updated as events and information allowed. The photographer was given access to the scene by emergency services staff. TheODT appears to have exercised some caution by publishing a general scene shot, and not photos of the victim’s car. It verified subsequently added information through a reliable source

Many, or most, visitors to websites will now understand that online reports will develop as information become available. First accounts of accidents or disasters can change dramatically. Fuller accounts can quickly be provided as more information and differing views are covered. Using reasonable care and adhering to ethical standards, reporters should be allowed to relay information quickly though the electronic media.

There may have been some initial misunderstanding about communication between complainant and editor, but theODT eventually responded adequately.

This was an example of on the spot, online reporting of an accident in a public place, and of a story that evolved as information became available. The Council believes the largely factual report did not deliberately mislead readers, nor constitute a breach of the principles of accuracy, fairness and balance and photographs and graphics. We do not believe the report seriously breached the complainant’s privacy.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small, Mark Stevens, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin