SMH censured by Press Council for stabbing death coverage

Fairfax’s Sydney Morning Herald has been censured by the Australian Press Council for its coverage of the death of a teacher who was stabbed at an inner-suburban bus stop.

In a story last year, the paper described the stabbing in graphic detail and in the online version included videos of the deceased with his two young children as well as excerpts of the police interviewing the accused. The family complained to the APC the story had breached their expectation of privacy and caused them offence and distress.

The family also complained the online version used a photograph of the deceased holding his two children which was taken from the funeral booklet, despite a clear request that no attendee co-operate with the media in order to protect their privacy.

Replying to the complaint, Fairfax said the case had been heard in an open court and the article’s contents had been on the public record. Fairfax also claimed a public interest aspect to the story as the attacker had been found not guilty on the grounds of mental illness in the subsequent murder trial.

Fairfax did however concede the online article should have had a ‘distressing content’ tag at the start of its videos and that the children’s faces should have been pixellated.

In its ruling, the council accepted there is a strong public interest in reporting on the administration of justice and matters of public health and safety, particularly in drawing attention to the care and support available for people with serious mental illness.

The council found the public interest did not extend to publishing the photograph from the funeral booklet and noted the family’s explicit request in the funeral booklet was a reasonable expectation of privacy which the SMH should have heeded.

Accordingly, the APC ruled the story breached Principle 5 of its guidelines: “Avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.”

The council also found the graphic detail in the story did cause unnecessary distress and “were more than necessary or appropriate to achieve the publication’s understandable aims of serving the public interest” which was also a breach of the APC’s guidelines.

As the funeral itself was a public service and the journalist had identified herself to the organisers, the council dismissed the family’s complaint the story had been gathered by deceptive or unfair means.


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