Press Coun­cil Ad­ju­di­ca­tion

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - NEWS -

THE Press Coun­cil con­sid­ered a com­plaint from Rachael Pe­trak about an ar­ti­cle pub­lished in The Sun­day Tele­graph on July 30 2017, headed “Mum died from her tod­dler’s sick­ness” in print and “Dead mum Imo­gen Pe­trak may have caught pneu­mo­coc­cal dis­ease from her child” on­line.

The ar­ti­cle re­ported on the death of Imo­gen Pe­trak, the com­plainant’s sis­ter-in-law. It be­gan: “A PREG­NANT mother who was rushed to hos­pi­tal with an ear in­fec­tion and later died af­ter an emer­gency Cae­sarean may have caught the deadly pneu­mo­coc­cal dis­ease from her own un­vac­ci­nated tod­dler.”

Fur­ther on, the ar­ti­cle stated: “Ms Pe­trak’s 17-month-old son … who was not vac­ci­nated, was also un­well in the days lead­ing up to her death. Tests con­firmed the in­fec­tion was pneu­mo­coc­cal type 19F, which is cov­ered by the pneu­mo­coc­cal vac­cine … The bac­te­ria can spread - be­tween peo­ple through in­fected droplets in the air and by touch­ing an in­fected per­son.”

The com­plainant said the ar­ti­cle was in­cor­rect, as Imo­gen’s son was not ill with pneu­mo­coc­cal dis­ease prior to Imo­gen’s death and he was not the cause or likely cause of her death. She said that as a re­sult of the ar­ti­cle a num­ber of other pub­lish­ers also re­ported that Imo­gen’s son may have caused her death. This had been dis­tress­ing to the fam­ily. The com­plainant said Imo­gen’s son might en­counter this ar­ti­cle in the fu­ture and be­lieve he was re­spon­si­ble for her death, which would be es­pe­cially dis­tress­ing. The com­plainant said in­for­ma­tion about Imo­gen’s blood test re­sults and Imo­gen’s son’s vac­ci­na­tion sta­tus was pub­lished with­out the fam­ily’s knowl­edge or con­sent.

She said the hos­pi­tal as­sured the fam­ily its staff had not passed this in­for­ma­tion to the pub­li­ca­tion. She said pub­lish­ing med­i­cal in­for­ma­tion re­lat­ing to Imo­gen and her son was un­eth­i­cal and in­sen­si­tive, and there was no se­ri­ous threat to pub­lic health or a manda­tory dis­ease no­ti­fi­ca­tion that made such dis­clo­sure in the pub­lic in­ter­est.

She said that as the cir­cum­stances of Imo­gen’s death were rare, re­port­ing on it did not have the same pub­lic in­ter­est as more com­mon mat­ters of pub­lic health and safety.

The pub­li­ca­tion said al­though the print head­line could be mis­lead­ing, it was qual­i­fied by the ref­er­ence in the open­ing sen­tence that Imo­gen “may” have caught the dis­ease from her son, which it said was true at the time.

It said se­nior health sources con­firmed that be­cause the bac­te­ria can present it­self as a harm­less cold, med­i­cal au­thor­i­ties were ex­am­in­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that Imo­gen’s son may have car­ried the bac­te­ria and dis­played cold-like symp­toms, and this might be how Imo­gen had con­trac- ted the dis­ease. The pub­li­ca­tion said that hav­ing con­firmed this in­ves­ti­ga­tion with a se­nior health source, it was un­der no le­gal obli­ga­tion to seek the con­sent of the fam­ily to re­port on the mat­ter.

The pub­li­ca­tion said the pneu­mo­coc­cal bac­te­ria is very com­mon and is air­borne and easy to catch. It said the ar­ti­cle con­cerned se­ri­ous mat­ters of pub­lic safety and health and it was in the pub­lic in­ter­est to re­port. The pub­li­ca­tion said the is­sue of vac­ci­na­tions and the pos­si­ble health risks of un­vac­ci­nated chil­dren have been of ma­jor pub­lic im­por­tance in Aus­tralia and the sub­ject of re­cent fed­eral gov­ern­ment ini­tia­tives to en­cour­age par­ents to vac­ci­nate their chil­dren. Con­clu­sion

The Coun­cil’s Stan­dards of Prac­tice ap­pli­ca­ble in this mat­ter re­quire pub­li­ca­tions to take rea­son­able steps to en­sure fac­tual ma­te­rial is ac­cu­rate and not mis­lead­ing (Gen­eral Prin­ci­ple 1) and pre­sented with rea­son­able fair­ness and bal­ance (Gen­eral Prin­ci­ple 3). If the ma­te­rial is sig­nif­i­cantly in­ac­cu­rate or mis­lead­ing, or refers ad­versely to a per­son, pub­li­ca­tions must take rea­son­able steps to pro­vide ad­e­quate re­me­dial ac­tion or an op­por­tu­nity for a re­sponse to be pub­lished (Gen­eral Prin­ci­ples 2 and 4). The Coun­cil’s Stan­dards of Prac­tice also re­quire pub­li­ca­tions to take rea­son­able steps to avoid in­trud­ing on a per­son’s rea­son­able ex­pec­ta­tions of pri­vacy (Gen­eral Prin­ci­ple 5), caus­ing or con­tribut­ing ma­te­ri­ally to sub­stan­tial dis­tress (Gen­eral Prin­ci­ple 6), and pub­lish­ing ma­te­rial gath­ered by un­fair means (Gen­eral Prin­ci­ple 7) — un­less do­ing so is suf­fi­ciently in the pub­lic in­ter­est.

The Coun­cil con­sid­ers the print head­line “Mum died from her tod­dler’s sick­ness” is pre­sented as a state­ment of fact not qual­i­fied in any way, and is in­ac­cu­rate. Al­though the pub­li­ca­tion re­port­edly re­lied on a highly trusted source at the hos­pi­tal, given the in­for­ma­tion was ob­tained from a sin­gle source con­fi­den­tial to the pub­li­ca­tion and the claim was of a highly spec­u­la­tive na­ture, the Coun­cil con­cludes that the pub­li­ca­tion failed to take rea­son­able steps to en­sure the state­ment that Imo­gen “may” have caught the dis­ease from her son was ac­cu­rate and not mis­lead­ing, and that it did not present fac­tual ma­te­rial with rea­son­able fair­ness and bal­ance. Based on the ma­te­rial pro­vided, re­port­ing that Ms Pe­trak’s death re­sulted from the trans­mis­sion of pneu­mo­coc­cal dis­ease from her child was with­out fac­tual ba­sis. This was es­pe­cially so for the print head­line, which was not qual­i­fied by the word “may”. Ac­cord­ingly, the pub­li­ca­tion breached Gen­eral Prin­ci­ples 1 and 3.

The pub­li­ca­tion has nei­ther amended or re­moved the on­line ar­ti­cle, nor pub­lished a print cor­rec­tion.

Al­though the pub­li­ca­tion later in­di­cated it might be will­ing to write a fol­low-up ar­ti­cle, this would not ad­e­quately rem­edy the sig­nif­i­cant in­ac­cu­racy and un­fair­ness of the ar­ti­cle. Given this, the Coun­cil con­cludes that the pub­li­ca­tion also breached Gen­eral Prin­ci­ples 2 and 4.

The Coun­cil con­sid­ers that Imo­gen’s fam­ily had a rea­son­able ex­pec­ta­tion of pri­vacy in re­la­tion to de­tails of Imo­gen’s health and her son’s vac­ci­na­tion sta­tus. In pub­lish­ing such in­for­ma­tion, the pub­li­ca­tion failed to take rea­son­able steps to avoid in­trud­ing on this ex­pec­ta­tion of pri­vacy. The Coun­cil ac­cepts there is a strong pub­lic in­ter­est in re­port­ing on mat­ters of pub­lic health. How­ever, hav­ing re­gard for the un­usual med­i­cal cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing Imo­gen’s death, the rel­e­vance to the pub­lic in re­port­ing on this mat­ter was less strong than it might have oth­er­wise been. Given this, the Coun­cil con­cludes that the in­tru­sion on the fam­ily’s rea­son­able ex­pec­ta­tions of pri­vacy was not suf­fi­ciently in the pub­lic in­ter­est. Ac­cord­ingly, the pub­li­ca­tion breached Gen­eral Prin­ci­ple 5. The Coun­cil also con­sid­ers that in sug­gest­ing that Imo­gen’s son was the cause — or the likely cause — of her death, the pub­li­ca­tion failed to take rea­son­able steps to avoid caus­ing sub­stan­tial dis­tress to the com­plainant’s fam­ily, which for the same rea­sons was not jus­ti­fied by the pub­lic in­ter­est. Ac­cord­ingly, the Coun­cil con­cludes the pub­li­ca­tion breached Gen­eral Prin­ci­ple 6.

Re­liance on whistle­blow­ers and other con­fi­den­tial sources is nor­mal jour­nal­is­tic prac­tice. The Coun­cil does not con­sider the pub­li­ca­tion failed to take rea­son­able steps to avoid pub­lish­ing ma­te­rial gath­ered by de­cep­tive or un­fair means. Ac­cord­ingly, the pub­li­ca­tion did not breach Gen­eral Prin­ci­ple 7.

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