Decision of the Complaints Committee 00794-15 McMillan v Dumfries and Galloway Standard
Summary of complaint
1. Elaine McMillan complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Dumfries and Galloway Standard had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 5 (Intrusion into Grief or Shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Dumfries woman is murdered in USA”, published on 31 October 2014.
2. The article reported that Angela Laskey (referred to as Angela McMillan in the article) – the complainant’s sister in law - had been murdered in Santa Barbara, California. A journalist from the newspaper had contacted the complainant by telephone the day before the article was published. The sub-headline of the article stated that “Family ‘numb with shock’”. The article went on to report that “Angela’s brother Paul and his wife Elaine…said the news of her death had left the family ‘numb with shock’. Elaine said: ‘…We are sitting by the phone waiting for news’”.
3. The complainant said that the telephone conversation began with the journalist addressing her by her first name, and offering her condolences; only then did the journalist introduce herself. She then told the journalist that Ms Laskey’s name had not been released publicly, and enquired as to how the journalist knew about her death. She told the journalist that the newspaper should not report on Ms Laskey’s death until her name had been officially released, at which point she would speak to the journalist.
4. The complainant said that when the journalist had asked whether she and her husband were “numb with shock”, or if they “were sitting by the phone waiting for news”, she responded “yes”; the article’s presentation of these as direct quotations was therefore inaccurate. In circumstances where the name had not been released, and only family and close friends were aware of the death, she had not expected a call from a journalist, and it took her by surprise. Had she been aware of the journalist’s identity immediately, she said that she would not have said anything.
5. The newspaper said that the journalist introduced herself immediately, and informed the complainant that she was telephoning in relation to the death of Angela Laskey. It said that during the conversation about Ms Laskey and her family, the journalist asked “Do you feel numb with shock at what’s happened?”, to which the complainant responded “Yes. We are sitting by the phone waiting for news”.
6. The newspaper said that it had received a tip-off from a confidential source regarding her death, and had then contacted the Santa Barbara Police Department, which had stated that Ms Laskey’s name had not been officially released but confirmed that her family had been informed. The newspaper then checked the complainant’s husband’s Facebook page, from which it was clear that he was aware that Ms Laskey had died; it provided screen grabs of the page as it had appeared at the time. It said that in these circumstances, it decided that it was appropriate to approach the family. (The complainant denied that the postings amounted to an acknowledgment of Ms Laskey’s death.)
7. The newspaper offered to remove the complainant’s quotations from the online article, but maintained that the manner in which they had been presented was a traditional journalistic convention. It said that as the complainant had accepted that the words were true, there was no breach of the Code.
Relevant Code Provisions
8. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and - where appropriate - an apology published. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance.
iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Clause 5 (Intrusion into grief or shock)
i) In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. This should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings, such as inquests.
Findings of the Committee
9. The Committee recognised that in transcribing spoken remarks for print publication, it may be necessary to adapt a verbatim transcript to ensure that an individual’s meaning is clear. The complainant accepted that, during the conversation, she had agreed that she was “numb with shock”, and “sitting by the phone waiting for news”. She was aware in doing so that she was in a conversation with a journalist who was preparing to publish an article reporting on Ms Laskey’s death. The particular phrases in question were innocuous; the complainant had confirmed that they were an accurate summary of her feelings; and no particular significance was attached to the fact that they had been presented as a direct quotation. The Committee noted that, had the words not been innocuous, their publication in this form might have raised issues under Clause 1. In this instance, however, it concluded that their publication was not significantly misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1.
10. The Committee turned to consider the complaint under Clause 5. Whilst it acknowledged that the call from the journalist may have been unexpected, the conversation which followed did not suggest that the journalist, by telephoning the complainant, had acted in a manner that was insensitive or unsympathetic. On the complainant’s account of the conversation, the journalist had introduced herself immediately after offering condolences and confirming to whom she was speaking. The complainant’s account of the telephone conversation, and the timing of the call, did not demonstrate that there had been a lack of sympathy or discretion in the newspaper’s approach to the complainant. Whilst the Committee expressed its sympathy to the complainant, there was no breach of Clause 5.
11. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 03/02/2015
Date decision issued: 23/03/2015Back to ruling listing