Press Council acts on Facebook reader comments

Publishers have been given their first warning to take more responsibility on social media after the Australian Press Council declared a breach in material exclusively on a Facebook page, with the council viewing reader contributions on the platform as part of a masthead’s online content.

The council upheld a complaint against Victorian community newspaper The Moorabool News for failing to remove offensive comments by users on its Facebook page. The comments were on a photo of a fatal car accident which, along with some derogatory comments by readers, caused great offence and was a breach of privacy of the family of the victim, according to the complainant.

The photo showed emergency services at the scene, with the car having collided with a tree. The council ruled that while the photo would have been distressing to family members, it did not override the public interest justification, and did not breach any privacy as the victim could not be seen. It did not uphold that part of the complaint.

Comments made by some Facebook users, however, were another story.

“There can’t be any public interest or news value in these personal comments which are, by any account, highly offensive to people who are grieving,” Press Council chairman David Weisbrot said.

The Moorabool News noticed and deleted some comments which contained explicit language, but did not remove a number of other sensitive comments – even when asked to do so by the victim’s family. The victim’s sister commented throughout the posts, expressing her grief and outrage at the publication of the original post and some of the comments, demanding they be removed.

“The fact that by then the report and comments may have already been read widely did not justify failing to delete them,” the adjudication read.

The case has highlighted the ownership publishers must take over not just their own content, but anything that becomes a part of their online content, including reader contributions according to Professor Weisbrot.

He says will such decisions will become more common as the use and reach of social media increases.

“There have been other cases with some Facebook aspects, but this is the first one where it was squarely part of the decision making and an essential part of the complaint,” Prof Weisbrot said.

“It’s a small community newspaper, so we try to be understanding of that, but when comments were drawn to their attention they basically said ‘that’s not our responsibility, it’s Facebook’.

“Our rules are expressed in such a way that if The Sydney Morning Herald or The Australian publishes its article online, it’s responsible for the online content.

“The Moorabool News could have, and should have, done more to respect the intrusion of privacy by moderating the page. Any online presence is covered by the council…it’s your content, it’s out there and you’ve got to monitor it.

“Social media has become a big thing and is expanding its reach, so we will get more and more of these complaints. The convergence, the integration of media will be reflected in these cases.”

Prof Weisbrot said the Press Council hoped to meet with Facebook to discuss issues with how the site can be used by publishers, particularly in regard to allowing comments.

“You can shut off the ability to make comments full stop [on a page] but you can’t tailor that to individual pieces,” he said.

“That’s something Facebook should be more attentive to and it may be something for us to talk to Facebook about in the future.”

The Press Council is also starting to see complaints about the use and attribution of Facebook photos. Many publishers and news agencies regularly publish photos taken from Facebook with minimal or no attribution, something that currently does not breach Facebook’s guidelines, but could potentially run into the council’s code on misleading or deceptive conduct.

“In the past it may have been akin to a journalist visiting someone’s house, and while their back is turned, grabbing a photo from the mantelpiece,” Prof Weisbrot said.

“Now that photos are out there everywhere it’s become a more complicated and the ethics a little less certain. Some of the concerns expressed to us is that there have been no attribution at all.”

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