20380-17 Various v Mail Online

Decision: Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

Decision of the Complaints Committee 20380-17 Various v Mail Online

Summary of complaint

1. The Independent Press Standards Organisation received various complaints that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined, “BREAKING NEWS: ‘Gunshots fired’ as armed police surround Oxford Circus tube station and shoppers flee ‘after lorry ploughs into pedestrians’” published on 24 November.

2. IPSO received around 30 complaints about the article. In light of the volume of complaints received, and where the specific input of a complainant was not necessary, IPSO decided to summarise the complaints for the purpose of investigating the complaint on behalf of the complainants.

3. The article reported on an ongoing incident at Oxford Circus, which at the time, was being treated as a possible terror attack. The article reported on comments made on social media by individuals at Oxford Circus at the time, and included screenshots of a number of tweets from members of the public as well as the British Transport Police. It stated that armed police had arrived “amid reports of gunshots,” and reproduced one tweet that said, “there is a lorry stopped on the pavement in Oxford Street, police all around it and blood on the floor.” The article stated that another member of the public had tweeted that there were “rumours of shooting and a lorry.” The headline and a link to the article was also published on the publication’s official Twitter page.

4. Complainants said that the article, including the headline, was inaccurate, as there was no evidence to suggest a lorry had “ploughed into pedestrians”. The complainants said that this had not been confirmed by police and was based on one tweet, which was unrelated to this ongoing incident, and had been published by a member of the public 10 days before the incident at Oxford Circus. Complainants said that the article had been retweeted by members of the public many times, and although the article was amended and the tweet was deleted, the publication had not published a correction on the article or on Twitter.

5.  The publication emphasised that it was reporting on a major ongoing incident. It acknowledged that publications have a responsibility to report such events accurately, but also highlighted the importance of quickly disseminating new information as witness reports and official statements emerge, in order to provide the public with the best understanding of the situation. It said that it was quickly spotted internally that the article’s claim that a lorry may be involved was not in keeping with the majority of witness reports. This detail was removed from the article 7 minutes after it was published, and the tweet was deleted from the publication’s Twitter page 11 minutes after it was published.

6. The publication said it had undertaken an internal investigation into the matter, which had found that numerous reporters monitoring social media at the time mentioned reading a tweet that a lorry had been involved. While it acknowledged that one tweet was not contemporaneous, it provided the timestamp of the other tweet reported on in the article, which referred to “rumours of a lorry” while the incident was still ongoing. It said that many of the reports that had initially emerged regarding the incident turned out to be inaccurate, and as the news story developed the article was updated accordingly.

7. The publication said that when it was contacted by other media outlets later that evening regarding its report, it had issued a statement, acknowledging its error.  It said this statement was widely published by other publications. Further to this, after becoming aware of complaints to IPSO, it published an apology acknowledging the error six days after the article was published and after its internal investigation had been completed. This was published as a standalone correction in the Corrections and Clarifications column for 24 hours, before being archived in the usual way. A footnote correction, apologising for any distress caused, was also added to the article. This correction stated:

“A previous version of this article briefly carried a headline which referred to a witness report that a lorry had hit pedestrians. This inaccurate information was removed seven minutes after the error was spotted internally. We apologise for any distress that this may have caused.”

8. The publication said that it was not responsible for the number of times individuals chose to share the article or take screengrabs from social media. It said that while the article was shared on Twitter many times, the reference to the lorry was removed 7 minutes after it was published, and the earlier version article was no longer accessible. The publication’s Twitter account published a link to the full correction, so as to ensure that readers who had seen the inaccuracy through their Twitter account alone were aware of the inaccuracy and the publication’s subsequent apology.

Relevant Code provisions

9. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and- where appropriate- an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.

Findings of the Committee

10. The article reported on a breaking news story, where there was initial uncertainty as to the nature of the incident. The Committee acknowledged the publication’s position that in an ongoing situation such as this, the media plays an important role in informing the public of emerging developments. However, even in such circumstances, a publication must still demonstrate that it has taken appropriate care over the accuracy of the information it publishes.

11. At the time of publication there were no reports from the police to support the position that a lorry was involved in the incident. However, the article and the headline made clear that these reports were based on eyewitness accounts at the scene.  While the publication was aware of at least one contemporaneous report published on social media that suggested a lorry may have been involved, the specific claims that “witnesses at the scene described seeing a lorry on the pavement surrounded by police,” and that “the pavement was said to be covered in blood,” reported in the article had come from a tweet about an unrelated event. Although the Committee acknowledged that the reference to a lorry was removed completely from the article and the headline 7 minutes after it was published, these claims were significant, as they mischaracterised the nature of the incident and misrepresented reports from eye-witnesses. Where the time stamp of the tweet made it clear this was not a contemporaneous account, the publication had failed to take care over the accuracy of the article and the information published in the tweet, in breach of Clause 1(i).

12. Editorial staff had quickly become aware that the reference to a lorry reportedly being involved in the incident within the article was not in keeping with the majority of eye witness accounts, and this reference was deleted within a short period of time from both the article and the publication’s Twitter page. This claim was not repeated in the publication’s ongoing coverage of the incident, which was updated frequently as more details became known. The Committee welcomed the publication’s internal investigation into the matter and the publication of a correction which acknowledged the initial inaccuracy, made readers aware of the correct position, and apologised for any distress caused. The Committee also welcomed the publication’s action in tweeting a link to the published correction, as it acknowledged that a number of people had become aware of the inaccurate report through social media. This correction was published promptly following notification from IPSO that the article had received complaints, and was sufficiently prominent so as to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

Conclusions

13. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action required

14. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

15. The Committee considered that the prompt publication of a standalone correction and apology, which was also tweeted by the publication’s Twitter account, as well as the publication of a footnote correction to the article was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii).

Date complaint received: 28/11/2017

Date decision issued: 01/02/2018

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