MILLY WOODS AGAINST STUFF

Case Number: 2606

Council Meeting: JULY 2017

Verdict: Upheld

Publication: Stuff

Ruling Categories: Children and Young People
Privacy

Overview

Milly Woods complained that an article published online on Stuff NZ, ‘Bath bombs cause painful reaction among females’ breached Press Council Principles 2 (Privacy) and 3 (Children and Young People).

Background

On July 23 Stuff NZ published an article headed ‘Bath bombs cause painful reaction among females’ about a painful skin reaction suffered by two girls, in separate incidents, after they had bathed in water infused with bath bombs sold by nationwide retailers.

The story identified and quoted the mothers, who described their daughters’ vulvas as “red and irritated” and ‘red raw, raised and sore’ after their baths. Both children, one a toddler and another a preschooler, were named in the story.

The Complaint

Ms Woods complained that it was inappropriate for Stuff to have mentioned the names of the children particularly when the state of their vulvas was being described.

“This is on the internet, which as everyone knows, means it can be around forever,” she said.

She quoted Press Council Principle 3, Children and Young People, which states: “In cases involving children and young people editors must demonstrate an exceptional degree of public interest to override the interests of the child or young person.”

Naming the girls in this case was not necessary for public interest, she said.

In response to the editor, the complainant agreed she would not have complained about the identification of the children if the story was about a different body part.

She agreed that the assumption the article would remain online was hypothetical, but the assumption that it wouldn’t be, is also hypothetical, she said.

She felt it was better to “err on the side of caution when taking the interests of the children into account”.

She acknowledged that the mothers consented to the identification of their children. “They are not the ones who are meant to abide by the Principles of the Press Council,” she said. “That is the role of the editor.”

The Response

Fairfax Media’s National Life and Style Editor Geoff Collett said one of the mothers in question had offered the initial suggestion for the story to be reported, and both parents were comfortable with Stuff using their daughters’ names.

He argued that the topic was a valid matter for reporting: to inform parents that bath bombs can cause unpleasant skin reactions to the genital area was important and it was firmly in the realm of public interest.

He acknowledged that some readers could find discussing genitalia awkward but he did not consider that to be an over-riding consideration in this case.

The editor said the children were so young as to rely entirely on their mothers to represent their interests and concerns. He had checked with the mothers subsequent to the complaint, and both had confirmed they had no concerns about the story or the fact their daughters were identified.

The editor argued that a news organisation’s first priority was to provide relevant information, not to suppress it. The naming of the children added credibility and a genuine human element to the story.

He said the complainant’s suggestion that the article could live on the internet for all time and come back to embarrass the children in years to come was a “hypothetical and speculative argument.”

He described the story as a straightforward, wholly appropriate report about a minor bath-time skin irritation, which did not affect the interests of the children.

He denied that the report had breached Principle 3, and maintained that as the parents freely shared their details and names for the story, Principle 2 also had not been breached.

The Decision

The point of Ms Woods’ complaint is that the children should not have been named in the story because it gave details of the reaction on their genitalia in very direct terms.

There is no suggestion by the complainant that the story should not have been published; it is indeed a cautionary tale, and should serve as a warning to other parents.

Identifying the two girls, because the parents had consented, and because it added to the credibility and genuine human element of the story is contentious however - most parents of young children would heed the warning about using bath bombs purely on the basis of the description of the skin reaction.

Whether or not the story could live on the internet for all time and come back to embarrass the children in years to come is a complete unknown but it is a relevant issue given that news organisations are generally reluctant to remove stories from their archives unless there is a compelling reason to do so.

The editor’s response that the mother of one of the girls approached Stuff with the information, and that both parents agreed to have the children’s names published, and were happy with the story after it was published, offered the Press Council a compelling argument against upholding the complaint under Principle 2, Privacy, in that the parents are the legal guardians.

The Press Council finds that the circumstances of this case however did not warrant naming the children. Principle 3, Children and Young People, states:“In cases involving children and young people, editors must demonstrate an exceptional degree of public interest to override the interests of the child or young person.” We see no public interest in naming the children, let alone the exceptional degree required by the Principle.

The thrust of the story is a warning that bath bombs can cause an allergic skin reaction in children. In our opinion, naming the sufferers of that reaction does not add to the validity of the story in any way other than to provide a human element. Given the explicit and highly personal nature of the details published, it is likely the children would be embarrassed if they found their names linked to such details in the future.

Accordingly, we have refrained from naming any of the family members in this decision, and require that the publishers remove the names in the online report.

The complaint is upheld on Principle 3.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Jo Cribb, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, John Roughan, Vernon Small, Christina Tay and Tim Watkin.

Mark Stevens took no part in the consideration of this complaint.