Sun-Herald criticised by Press Council for distressing family in report about student’s death

A Sun-Herald article about a young woman’s death at a residential college has been condemned by the press watchdog, after it published family details the day before her birthday, exacerbating the distress caused.

‘The deadly hidden disorder inside our university colleges’ was published on July 9 last year, and featured a photograph of the deceased woman, Rebecca Gallagher, and her mother.

The article was published on the eve of the complainant’s daughter’s birthday

It made reference to Gallagher’s death in June 2016, stating she had died from “complications believed to be associated with anorexia nervosa”. It described the circumstances in which she was found in her dormitory and said her death notice had asked for donations to be made to a charity which supported those suffering from eating disorders.

It went on to discuss eating disorders and their impact within university colleges, with commentary from female university students. The story also includes the names and occupations of Gallagher’s parents and the region where they worked.

The complainant, Gallagher’s father, said the article was published on the eve of his daughter’s birthday, and argued the article failed to consider the distress it might cause. He added he had requested to have details identifying Gallagher withheld and the details related to him and Gallagher’s mother were an intrusion of privacy.

The complainant also said a line in the online version, “the family [… was] contacted before publishing this story”, suggested the family had co-operated and agreed with the piece. He also said the publication had deciphered the cause of death before the coroner had.

Fairfax Media’s masthead said the article was in the public interest, pointing out Gallagher’s death was reported in the context of a significant problem with eating disorders in Australian universities. It said the circumstances of her death were backed by the college, those who found her, police and friends.

The article was read to the complainant’s lawyer, it said, noting the family had asked the article not be published – but the accuracy of the facts were ‘largely undisputed’, it told the Press Council.

As for the information about Gallagher’s parents, the Sun-Herald said it was to “outline her background”, but it admitted the line “family was contacted” did not mean to imply cooperation.

The Sun-Herald said that was “deeply regrettable”, as was the timing of publication, and apologised for the distress.

Although the Press Council ruled the story was in the public interest, it upheld the complaint on the basis the report had mislead readers to suggest the family had co-operated with the paper.

It added the family had a reasonable expectation to privacy and the reporting of Gallagher’s parents’ information was unnecessary.

As the article was published on the eve of her birthday, the watchdog said this increased the family’s distress, as did the inclusion of details related to the complainant and Gallagher’s mother.

“The statement in the online article that the family was contacted prior to publication implied they co-operated with the publication,” the ruling said.

“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.”

However the Press Council did note the publication had taken reasonable steps to ensure the factual material was accurate and fair.


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