WA Today censured by Press Council for unfair ‘Bong claims Santa Maria teacher’s job’ headline

WAToday Press Council rulingFairfax Media’s has been censured by the Australian Press Council for reporting unsubstantiated allegations that a teacher had resigned from her role after a photo of her holding a bong had been discovered on social media.

The Press Council ruled the online news outlet’s story ‘Bong claims Santa Maria teacher’s job: You’ve got to be toking?’, published May 9 and based on a local radio station’s “Rumour File” segment, had failed to substantiate facts and fairness in both the initial article and its subsequent revisions.

The article referred to a teacher losing her position at a named Catholic girls’ school as a result of a “social media incident”, suggesting this involved the circulation of a photograph of the teacher holding a bong. The article also suggested that a topless photo of the teacher may have been behind the loss of her position. 

The article was accompanied by a stock image of a person apparently smoking a bong with a qualifying caption.

The implicated teacher complained the article’s claim that she lost her employment as a result of a photograph of her holding a bong was completely false and that no such photo existed. The teacher said while the article was based on unsubstantiated rumour, the headline had an unequivocal statement.

The teacher also argued that while she was not named in the report, the article on Facebook and the identifying details it contained resulted in her being named in comments on the publication’s Facebook feed.

The teacher complained the article intruded upon her privacy and caused her substantial distress, especially given the potential to impact significantly on her future employment opportunities within the teaching profession.

WA Today argued the story’s purpose was to highlight the implications of social media use on a person’s professional life and it had taken steps to establish the facts of the teacher’s departure from the school, including contacting the principal. It said when no response was provided it had then contacted Catholic Education Western Australia, and its comment was included in the article.

The following day, Catholic Education contacted the publication and the article was updated to include a comment by the principal that the suggestion that drugs were involved in the teacher’s resignation was “categorically untrue”.

While the publication acknowledged the complainant’s concerns, it argued the article did not name her and social media impacting on people’s employment was a matter of significant public interest.

It said that after learning of the complainant’s concerns, it had removed the article from its Facebook page and revised the online article to remove the photograph and the reference to a “bong” from the headline.

However, it was the Press Council’s view that as the article had originated from a radio segment “Rumour File”, and the allegations were serious, the publication should have taken greater care to establish the facts.

The Press Council concluded WA Today failed to ensure accuracy and fairness in its initial article, and subsequent revisions adding while there is public interest in highlighting the impact of social media on individuals’ professional lives, the inaccuracy in the headline and reporting of unsubstantiated serious allegations intruded upon the teacher’s privacy and caused her significant distress that was not justified by the public interest.

Miranda Ward


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