6 Sep 2019

Media Council ruling: Photograph should not have been published

7:08 am on 6 September 2019

A photo of a distressed and vulnerable mentally ill woman should not have been published, the Media Council has ruled in a majority decision.

The photo accompanied a report of a court appearance, for sentencing for breaches of a protection order. The woman, who has obsessive-compulsive disorder, was sentenced to jail for one year.

The Otago Daily Times published the report which was further published by the New Zealand Herald and RNZ. The Media Council received complaints against all publications.

The Council has said in selecting the photograph that accompanied the article the publications had a duty to ensure that special consideration was extended to those affected. "We do not accept that because there is public interest in an issue, it is acceptable to publish an arresting photograph, when it is so graphic and invasive, and shows a mentally ill person's distress. There must always be a balance, a judgment exercised, when a photograph of a person in such a vulnerable state, is published. The balance here should have been seen as plainly against publication" the Council said.

The publications had argued that, since permission to photograph had been granted by a judge, they had the right to publish the photo. Also, there was a public interest in doing so, given that the issue at heart was that a failure of mental health services had led to the woman being jailed.

This argument was accepted by a minority of the Council in their dissenting opinion. They added "Reporting and photographing distressing events is an uncomfortable but daily part of news reportage and a media organisation would not be doing its job if it attempted to make events appear less distressing or serious in retrospect, even when coverage is upsetting to those involved."

A further complaint about the report breaching the privacy of a person suffering grief or trauma was not upheld. The Council determined that the public interest in reporting on court proceedings prevailed over the privacy interests of the individual featured in this case.

Likewise, complaint that the report was not accurate, fair or balanced in its depiction of the court hearing was not upheld. The language was highly descriptive but seemed to be an accurate and fair reflection of what happened in court that day. A court report is limited to report what has happened during the proceeding. This was not the occasion to introduce balancing commentary on the woman's experiences with mental health services. The Council notes that this aspect was covered in subsequent articles.

The full Media Council decision is at mediacouncil.org.nz