The sudden death of a young woman might be news but in May the Oamaru Mail made the mistake of turning it into a front-page sensationalisation of a troubled life.
Her family, confronted with this just two days after the death, was understandably upset. So was the community which responded with a torrent of letters, phone calls and cancelled subscriptions.
The editor, who had written the story, apologised and explained the reasoning behind the decision to run the story. The family wasn’t placated and Elle’s mother complained to the Press Council.
The council upheld her complaint and in doing so said:
The council does not deny the newspaper its right to publish the fact of the death – but it is the way the newspaper went about it that has brought it into conflict with Elle’s family, the local community and the council’s principles.
Publications, particularly those serving small communities, have a particular duty to report tragic events with sensitivity. The untimely death of a young person is distressing to such communities as there is a greater likelihood of individuals being known to one another and, in the event of a highly publicised sudden death, the community becomes alight with speculation.
In this case, the front-page lead article and its accompanying photograph added fuel to fire. It contributed to increased distress and trauma of Elle’s family and friends at this time of tragedy.
The editor did not try hard enough to obtain positive details about Elle; the article was simply a list of her problems with the law.
The paper had tried to contact the family but they understandably had other priorities immediately after the death. Had the Mail stuck to reporting the bare facts at first then waited it might have had the opportunity for another and better story later.
Its haste and insensitivity, compounded by the use of a photo of Elle being arrested, cost it dearly in loss of reputation and readers.
The sudden death of a young woman might be news but the Press Council’s decision shows that coverage of it must be sensitive.