Ruling

04737-18 Jones v Epsom Guardian

    • Date complaint received

      18th October 2018

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock

Decision of the Complaints Committee 04737-18 Jones v Epsom Guardian

Summary of complaint

1. Joanna Jones complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Epsom Guardian breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article published online headlined “Epsom mum fighting back against leukemia”, published on 27 June 2018.

2. The article was based on a “Your News” submission which the complainant had submitted to the newspaper. The piece was in the form of a press release in which the complainant had sought to raise awareness of a stem cell donor registration event taking place at a local primary school, following her own diagnosis of leukemia in November 2016.

3. The complainant said that the article was a distortion of the contents of her original press release, and represented an intrusion into her privacy, because it had disclosed her email address, without her consent.

4. The complainant said that she had not stated in the press release that she had “hoped to avoid chemotherapy”, as reported in the article; she had stated “there was no perfect stem cell donor match on the worldwide register for Jo so she is undergoing 3 years of chemotherapy instead”. The complainant said it was not possible to avoid chemotherapy after being diagnosed with leukemia. The press release stated that she had been diagnosed with leukemia in November 2016; the article had reported that she had been diagnosed “nearly three years ago”. The press release had stated that both of the complainant’s children had been pupils at a local primary school when she had been diagnosed; the article had reported that they were current pupils there. The complainant said that in fact, one of her children no longer attended the school.

5. The complainant said that she had expressly clicked a box titled “Don’t credit me”, which had stated: “we will always need your contact details so we can contact you about your submission but, if you check this box, we will never publish details alongside your contributions”.

6. The complainant expressed concern at the manner in which the publication had responded to her concerns when she had raised them to the publication directly via a telephone call, shortly after the article had been published. The complainant said that, while the editor had been calm throughout the conversation, he had not expressed compassion or sympathy for her diagnosis, or the situation she had found herself in. She said that the publication’s failure to respond to her concerns in an empathetic way, was highly insensitive given her distressing personal situation.

7. The publication expressed regret that the article had caused the complainant concern, but noted that after the complainant had contacted it directly, the article was removed immediately from online, and the complainant was called back to be reassured that the article would not be appearing in print.

8. The newspaper did not accept that the published article represented a breach of Clause 1. It said that it was standard practice for reader submissions to be reviewed and edited by the publication, before being published online, as had happened in the complainant’s case.

9. The newspaper accepted the complainant’s position that she had not said in her original submission that she had “hoped to avoid chemotherapy”. The publication also accepted that the complainant had not been diagnosed with cancer “nearly three years ago”, and acknowledged her position that only one of her children now attended the primary school. However, the publication denied that the changes which had been made to the original copy, had resulted in errors that significantly distorted the tone or meaning of the complainant’s press release. The publication noted that the complainant had submitted the piece in an effort to promote the stem cell donor register event; praise the school for its support of her children; and publicise the forthcoming Fun Day. It said that the article had featured all these key elements, as, the publication suggested, the complainant had hoped the article would do.

10. In an attempt to resolve the complaint, the publication offered to publish the following wording on its homepage:

In an article headlined “Epsom mum fighting back against leukemia”, published on 27th June 2018,  we reported that Joanna Jones was diagnosed with leukemia nearly three years ago, and had been hopeful to avoid chemotherapy during that time. We are happy to clarify that, in fact, Mrs Jones was diagnosed with Leukemia in November 2016 and she did not suggest in her Your News submission that she had hoped to avoid chemotherapy. We also reported that both her children are students at Stamford Green Primary; while both of Mrs Jones’ children used to attend this school, one of them no longer does so.

11. The publication denied that it had breached Clause 2 by publishing the complainant’s email address. It noted that in her submission, the complainant had expressly stated; “for more information about stem cell donor registration please contact Jo Jones” and had provided her email address and telephone number. The publication said there was nothing to suggest that the complainant did not want her email to be used by its readers.

12. The publication acknowledged that the complainant had ticked the “Don’t credit me” box when she had submitted her story. However it said the box applied to photo credits or other submissions which, unlike in the complainant’s case, did not relate to a specific person, or include their photograph.

13. The publication said that when the complainant had approached the newspaper directly and had spoken to staff, her concerns had been received sympathetically. It did not accept the complainant’s account of her interaction with the newspaper, save for her recollection that the editor had been calm when he had spoken to her, and said that Clause 4 had not been breached.

Findings of the Committee

14. 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.

iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Clause 2 (Privacy)

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock)

In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.

Findings of the Committee

15. The Committee expressed sympathy for the complainant, and acknowledged that she had found the article distressing.

16. In the press release, the complainant had not stated that she had “hoped to avoid chemotherapy”. However, she had said that despite seeking a stem cell donor match, none was found, and that she was undergoing three years of chemotherapy “instead”. While the Committee understood the sensitivity of the issue, it was of the view that the complainant’s original submission had the potential to be read ambiguously. The inference which the newspaper had drawn from it, namely that the complainant had “hoped to avoid chemotherapy”, was not unreasonable, nor was it a failure to take care. The article had made clear that the complainant had sought to obtain a donor, and had not been able to do so. In those circumstances, and where she had identified the benefits of obtaining a blood stem cell donor, had sought a match, but had been unsuccessful, the newspaper’s interpretation of the complainant’s submission was not significantly misleading, such that a correction would be required under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). This aspect of the complainant did not raise a breach of Clause 1.

17. In the press release, the complainant had said that both of her children had been pupils at the time of her diagnosis; the submission contained no suggestion that this was no longer the case. In those circumstances, the newspaper had not failed to take care over the accuracy of the article in reporting that both of her children remained pupils there; where one of her children still remained a pupil at the school, this error was not a significant inaccuracy which required correction. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

18. The complainant had been diagnosed with leukemia in November 2016; this was clearly not “nearly three years ago”, as the article had claimed. While the Committee recognised that the date of any diagnosis is deeply significant for the individual concerned, in the context of an article primarily concerned with the promotion of stem cell donation, such an error did not render the tenor of the piece significantly inaccurate.

19. While the amendments which the newspaper had made to the press release had not resulted in any inaccuracies which represented a breach of Clause 1, given the sensitivity of the complaint, the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer of a clarification, which addressed the points above.

20. The Committee recognised that in certain circumstances, the publication of an individual’s contact details may have the potential to be intrusive. However, in this case, the press release submitted by the complainant for the purposes of publication, had contained the complainant’s email address; it had stated that she could be contacted for further information on stem cell donor registration, should readers wish to do so. The Committee acknowledged that the complainant had ticked the “Don’t Credit me” box, when she had issued her submission. However, she had included her email address in the press release, and this gave rise to an ambiguity: it was reasonable for the publication to interpret the inclusion the email address, contained within a press release, as meaning that the complainant had provided this information for publication. In those circumstances, the Committee did not establish that the disclosure of her email address in the article under complaint, represented an intrusion into the complainant’s privacy. There was no breach of Clause 2.

21. Clause 4 states that in cases involving grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion, and publication handled sensitively. The Committee recognised that the issues raised in the article were highly sensitive and personal to the complainant. However, the Committee considered that the purpose of Clause 4 is to provide protections to individuals during times of grief or shock, following tragic events or trauma. In this case, while the Committee understood the complainant’s concern, in this instance, it considered that she had not been in a state of “grief or shock” such as would engage the terms of Clause 4.

Conclusion

22. The complaint was not upheld.

Date complaint received: 27/07/2018

Date complaint concluded: 27/09/2018