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Law Column: IPSO and the use of social media as a source

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Social media is a valuable source of stories, photos and information, especially for regional newspapers with a keen eye to what is trending locally. People on the scene, or involved in an incident can post material inaccessible to a reporter.

The recent IPSO complaint by a father, upset by the online report of his son’s death in a weekly paper last year, is just one example of the care that should be taken when using social media as a source.

In its story about his son’s death on a motorway, the paper had used some comments that the father had posted on his public Facebook profile.

The father complained about the story under the Editors’ Code of Practice, Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause (4) Intrusion into grief or shock, and Clause 10 (Clandestine Devices and subterfuge). There was no IPSO determination on whether the complaint would have been upheld, because fortunately the paper resolved the complaint by agreeing to meet the father and discuss the issues with a view to publishing an article.

The father complained that there were some inaccuracies in the coverage of his son’s death, and that the comments that he had posted on Facebook were misrepresented. The paper defended both the accuracy of the article and the steps taken to obtain a comment from the father.

The Editors’ Code states that the press must take care not to publish inaccurate misleading or distorted information. The paper did not accept there were significant inaccuracies and in any event had offered to amend the points complained of. A key point here is that whilst a newspaper must take care not to publish inaccuracies, the important step when a significant inaccuracy is made is to correct it promptly and with due prominence.

The Code appears to accept that mistakes can be made, but there is a difference between serious distortions and small mistakes, and importantly, damage can be remedied by a prompt correction.

The father also complained that the newspaper had accessed comments he made on Facebook without his consent. His complaint in that regard was under Clause 10 ‘subterfuge’ but it also touches on the issue of privacy. Whilst everyone is entitled to respect for their private and home life, this right is subject to a ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’.

One of the measures of a reasonable expectation is the degree to which material is already public, including ‘the complainant’s own public disclosures of the information’. Therefore, it is difficult to argue that a comment posted on a public Facebook profile is intrinsically private.

Death is a matter of public record, and newspapers have a right to publish. Clause 4 of the Code (Intrusion into grief or shock), does not amount to a ban on covering tragic stories unless all parties consent. Nor does it mean that sensitive material cannot be published.

In this case, the paper said no-one visited the complainant’s home and the approach was made in order to make a tribute to the son.

As reporters and editors know, in times of tragic loss, emotions are heightened and people can be distressed by an approach that for a reporter may seem almost routine. Particular care needs to be made to ensure that approaches are made with sympathy and discretion and the publication is handled sensitively.

This means without unnecessary prurient detail and only when the family has been informed.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series on the use of social media – Part 2 – Copyright, in a fortnight.

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