Development of press ethics through the Press Council in Australia Jack R Herman(Executive Secretary of the Australian Press Council) (25/9/2010)

Regulatory background

Australia has no constitutional guarantee of free speech or of press freedom. Nor is this freedom written into any national law, although one state and one territory have legislated Bills of Rights that include freedom of speech.

Press freedom is an indispensable element of a liberal democracy: without the communication of ideas and debate on policy, the exercise of the franchise is severely curtailed. People have an entitlement to have information on matters of public interest and concern so that they can make up their own minds about whom to vote for and why.

Despite the absence of a guarantee or an over-riding law, most observers would agree that Australia has in practice a very free media, which is to an extent limited by the small number of organisations that own outlets in print and television. But that freedom is based on a number of conventions and needs to be defended against encroachment by governments, and by corporations.

In Australia the electronic media (TV and radio) are licensed through a government-appointed authority; newspapers (and journalists) are unlicensed. The Internet more closely resembles a "publishing" model than a broadcast model: it is unlicensed and, except in respect of aspects of pornography, the government authority does not oversee it. That is especially true for the growing number of news reporting and commentary sites on the Internet.


The make-up of the press

The Australian print media appears diverse on the surface, especially for a country with 22 millions in population. Even though that population is spread out over vast distances, it is concentrated in the metropolitan and provincial cities along the east and south-east coast. There are:

  • 2 national newspapers, one general interest and the other specialising in financial and economic matters. Neither has a very large circulation.
  • 10 morning daily newspapers published in the state and territory capitals. Sydney and Melbourne are the only cities with two daily newspapers, one broadsheet and one tabloid; each of the other metropolitan centres has a morning tabloid. Additionally, a relatively new, free evening tabloid is published in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, given away to commuters largely at metropolitan railway stations.
  • 40 regional daily newspapers published in provincial cities and around 250 once or twice weekly country newspapers.
  • 150 or so community (suburban) newspapers, within the capital cities, usually distributed free.

Australia, as a country established and continually renewed by immigration, has a vibrant ethnic community newspaper industry with over 100 newspapers published daily, weekly or monthly in about 30 languages (Chinese, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Arabic and Vietnamese being the main ones).

And add to all that one of the most diverse magazines industries, well over 1000 published, some of general interest, many trade and technical publications.

There are four major newspaper owners, with over 95 per cent of the market between them: News Limited (publishing national, metropolitan, suburbans and regional daily newspapers); Fairfax Media (national, metropolitan, suburbans, regional daily and country newspapers), APN (mainly regional dailies and country newspapers) and West Australian Newspapers (with metropolitan, suburban and country papers). The two largest magazine publishers, Consolidated Press and Pacific own a large proportion of the general interest magazine press.


The Council's role

The proposition that there should be a free press carries with it the concomitant idea that the free press needs to be responsible in the way it exercises that freedom. Thus there was a need for a body that could develop a set of ethical principles for the press and oversee press responsibility by insisting that newspapers and magazines abide by those principles.

The original model was the Press Council model, started in Sweden before the 1914-1918 War and further developed in the UK after the 1939-1945 War. That was of a body, independent of government and comprising representatives of the industry and the public, that existed to receive and deal with complaints from readers about what was published (or not published) in the press.

The Australian Press Council was established along these lines in 1976. A major difference between the newly created Council and its European predecessors was that, rather than developing a detailed code of ethics that mandated how the press should behave in specific situations, it based its complaints mechanism on a Statement of Principles that sets forth a series of ethical statements that should underpin responsible press conduct. (I have attached the Council's current Statement of Principles for your information.) Those principles have been the basis on which the Council arrives at decisions in particular cases and, over a period of years, it has made decisions that establish how those principles are applied to the everyday ethical dilemmas facing the press and which newsrooms face constantly: whether to run a confronting image of a crime, an accident or a natural disaster; whether a privacy invasion is justified in the public interest; whether the journalists have asked enough questions of enough sources to establish the facts of the case ; whether those singled out for criticism have been given an opportunity to respond; whether to run with an article you think is right notwithstanding that a deadline means that not all facts have been triple-checked.

The Council's Statement of Principles is basically an agreement between the Council and the publishers as to what the base rules are for responsible press conduct. As such, the Council, when reviewing those Principles, ensures that it consults the industry as to their content. The first major review of the Principles, in 1996, was carried out by a group of experienced editors who made a series of recommendations for change to the Council. The Council used that report as the basis of a re-writing. In 2008, the Council initiated a further review, which saw the preamble shortened and simplified and some of the Principles re-written. The one mainly affected was the first. Previously the Council had only insisted that publications not use material they knew, or should have known, to be false. Now we seek that they publish fair, accurate and balanced material and not mislead readers by omission or commission. After 30 years of cooperation with the print media in moving towards more responsible reporting, the Council has raised the bar further.

I will look at the way in which the Council deals with complaints from readers, either by mediation or by adjudication, a little later, but first I want to look at the initiatives it is taking now to improve he standards of press responsibility.



In the last fifteen years the Australian Press Council has done more than just deal with complaints from readers arising from alleged breaches of the Principles. The Council has started to take the initiative in dealing with wider systemic problems. At first this has been done by means of the development of Guideline statements. The Guidelines apply the Principles to the practice of reporting and are intended to guide the press on how it should report certain matters. These guidelines are not intended to be prescriptive instructions to the press, but act as a series of advisories on the application of the Principles, which the Council seeks the co-operation of editors in maintaining.

A couple of the more important guidelines look at the issues involved in reporting contentious matters like youth suicide, reporting medical breakthroughs, election journalism and questions of ethnicity and nationality. I have attached some of the guideline statements but will briefly look at a couple.



Until the last decade or so, most Australian newspapers did not report self-harm or suicide incidents in detail. They would often use euphemisms such as "The police say there are no suspicious circumstances" to get the message across without being explicit. In the early 1990s, the incidence of suicide, especially among those under 25, was so great that authorities decided that something needed to be done about shining a spotlight on the frightening statistics. The balance between reporting the phenomenon of suicide and the details of particular incidents became an important issue for the press, particularly in regions where there was a cluster of self-harm incidents. Complaints about the reporting of a particular death in 1996 led the Press Council to convene a conference of mental health experts, community groups, journalists and editors to discuss what could be done. One outcome was the guideline, which does not try to stop the reporting of particular deaths but tries to limit the reporting of specific details, including methods of suicide. It stresses the need for responsible, rather than sensational, reporting of suicide incidents and the need to discuss openly the wider impact of suicide incidents on society. The Council does not necessarily subscribe to the theory that the reporting of suicide leads to copy-cat suicides, and has shown cases where reporting has led to the local community addressing a cluster of suicides and saving lives. Its guideline on suicide has greatly improved the reporting of such matters in the press.


The guideline on the reporting of ethnicity and nationality similarly arose from some particular complaints about the way in which newspapers were reporting matters. As a multi-cultural society, Australia is very conscious that assumptions about people based on their appearance or the group to which they belong should not lead to the press publishing misleading material. In particular the Press Council's guideline expresses concern about reports or commentary that seeks to reinforce negative stereotypes about a group based on the behaviour of individual members of that group. It also seeks to restrict the use of offensive language about minority groups. The guideline does not seek to place a "politically correct" yoke around newspapers but to encourage civil discourse in the press.

Opinion polls

Another guideline, on what would appear to be a less controversial subject, has been very important in ensuring that readers are not misled. The guideline on opinion polls, originally distributed in the late 1970s and revised a couple of times since, sets out the sort of information that should be published when reporting the results of public polling, and recently the necessity to distinguish between public opinion polls based on a random sampling and self-selected phone-in or on-line surveys.



The next step is the move towards a more substantive development of Standards, to be promulgated through newsrooms and particularly to assist regional and community newspapers that do not have the staff or resources to develop their own professional practice manuals or have access to the resources available to the large, metropolitan newspapers. The aim of the Standards project is to combine the Principles and guidelines with examples of the Council's rulings in adjudications to create a more comprehensive package of material on press ethics. These Standards will provide a basis on which newsrooms can judge whether what they are about to publish is responsible, and will provide a better guidance for readers as to what is expected from a responsible press.

The end result of the Standards review will be a single publication that will look at each of the Principles, examine how the Council has dealt with complaints under that Principle, explain the guideline statements made under that Principle, make comments on the questions arising, and provide some hypothetical situations that will assist in training journalists to address these ethical concerns. This will be supplemented by examples from other codes – the in-house codes of local publishers, the codes from overseas press councils, and those of the electronic media, where relevant. There will be a greater stress on the practical and on particular situations. When published the Standards should be easily editable to reflect changes in community expectations and changes occasioned by technological developments.


Applying the current mechanism to online news sites

In developing the Standards, the Council will be paying special attention to the issues arising from the greater reliance on online news sites, looking at the specific questions arising from them. Since 2000, the Council has been dealing with the online news sites of its member publications on the same basis as it deals with print editions. In recent years, it has dealt with complaints about any online news site that agrees to abide by its standards by displaying its logo on the website front page.

In regard to matters related to material posted to newspaper websites, the Council has adopted slightly modified procedures.

  • The Council notifies the relevant website immediately it receives a complaint.
  • The website publisher is advised that a complaint has been accepted and has the option of removing the item, affixing an indicator on the item to the effect that it is disputed, or taking no action pending processing of the complaint if it is accepted by the Council.
  • The complaint, if accepted, is then processed according to usual procedures.
  • Any action taken by the website upon notification of the complaint can be taken into account if the Council adjudicates the complaint.

This process and the need for prompt attention may reduce the scope for mediation or negotiated settlements.


Other website issues

In looking more explicitly at how it will deal with complaints about online news sites, the Council has identified a number of issues that are different from its experience with print edition newspapers and magazines. It is now addressing these questions in order to respond to the particular concerns that readers of online news sites have.


Newspaper websites have comment sections both for blogs and for news articles. Should these be treated like letters to the editor pages? The major difference is online comments are more frequently anonymous or under a pseudonym. So, to what extent do comments need to be moderated? Does the openness of the medium apply to defamatory, racist and other offensive material? What is the responsibility of an online site when offensive material slips through?

Reputation management

Website archives, being more easily available than hardcopy libraries are, continue to have at hand old stories involving court appearances, convictions, etc. Is there a need to look at their continued existence? One possible solution is to add annotations to existing articles, particularly after successful appeals, or after a certain time span. When a conviction is overturned on appeal, or an accused exonerated, is there a greater onus on sites to annotate earlier articles?


When a website publisher is advised of a concern with posted anonymous material it has the option of immediately removing it or affixing an indicator to the effect that it is disputed. What does it say about those engaging in deliberate misrepresentation? Should online commentators be required to register with a traceable email address so the site is aware of who is commenting?

Social Networking sites

The extent to which these might become relevant to the Council is questionable: they don't appear to be news or commentary. But the effect they might have, in areas like privacy, cyber safety and access to information, means that the Council will have to take cognisance of them.

Video feeds

What ethical standards apply to video material on print media websites? Does the Council have the expertise to adjudicate on such material?


Who is responsible for news sites that aggregate material from other sites? Fairfax runs an opinion site that takes material from its print mastheads. Which is responsible: the newspaper, or the website that republishes it? How is balance achieved when there is a dispute on such material: by letters to the editor in the print edition or by comments on the website?

Carrying out the current complaints mechanism

For the most part complaints are still made by individual readers directly involved in the matter. Unlike some Councils, the Australian Press Council does not automatically rule out complaints from third parties, although it does seek to discourage them, especially in questions related to privacy. The Executive Secretary will, as a rule, not further process as complaints, matters from disinterested parties:

   which raise matters likely to lead to the further invasion of the privacy of those reported on;

   which appear to the Executive Secretary to raise largely trivial or frivolous concerns; or

   which do not raise a significant breach of the principles.

The Council has relied on reader-initiated complaints because it has been wary about being the initiator of complaints itself for fear of being seen as both the "prosecutor" and the "jury". It has had for about a decade a mechanism that allows Council members to introduce for debate concerns of a more systemic kind, i.e. matters that are not directed at one particular outlet, but address something seen as affecting the standards of the press more generally. Members have been generally reluctant to use this process. As noted above, the Council usually addresses systemic concerns as they arise from specific complaints. That's how guidelines on reporting medical breakthroughs and on the use of terms of unmodified religious terms in headlines, amongst many others, were developed.

In 2009-2010, the most common basis for complaints were:

Inaccuracy (27%)

Imbalance (20%)

Unfair treatment (11.3%)

Offensive image, material or cartoon (11%)

Racism/Religious disparagement (9.5%)

Unethical conduct (5%)

Invasion of privacy (4%)

The Council does not have the resources, nor the coercive power, to be an investigative body. Generally it relies on the complainant providing the details on what was wrong with the material complained of and the publication in providing a response to the concerns. Having said that, the Council has become more active in seeking material that demonstrates assertions made by either party. If the complainants say they wrote a letter to the editor, we ask for a copy of it; if they say there had been earlier problems, we ask for a copy of that earlier article. Similarly, if a newspaper says that it provided balance, we need to see the material actually published; if they rely on reporter's notes, such notes should be available to the Council in order to justify that what they say is true. In cases where the publication has relied on unnamed sources, the Council does not ask the journalist to reveal those confidential sources (that would be a breach of long-held press ethics) but it has asked editors to make inquiries and to assure the Council that they are satisfied with the sources' bona fides.

The Council has been a pioneer of alternative dispute resolution using mediation and/or conciliation to find a more immediate settlement. In recent years up to 50 per cent of complaints have been settled by agreement within two weeks of the receipt of complaints, often by publication of additional material or by correspondence between the parties, via the Council. In order to encourage publications towards such settlements, the Executive Secretary has been given the discretion to contact the publication and more plainly point out the need for a published correction, clarification or apology - and publications have by and large been cooperative in doing so, and in acknowledging the Council's intervention to achieve the result.

Where the matter cannot be settled by agreement, the complainant has the option of referring the matter to the Council for adjudication. In the last year just over 10 per cent of complaints went to the Council for adjudication. As more matters are settled by agreement, fewer need to be adjudicated. Since its start in July 1976 and up to June 2010, the Council has issued 1460 adjudications, of which 42.3 per cent upheld the complaint in whole or part. When a complaint is the subject of adjudication, the publication involved is obliged by the Principles to publish the finding, with due prominence. And they do.

Is this an effective punishment? Should the Council fine publications or suspend them from publishing? The Council has rejected these alternatives for good reason: if the fines were large enough to have an impact on the publisher, they would necessarily involve lawyers in the process. No publisher is going to pay a fine without exploring every option to avoid it. The advantage that the Press Council has in developing an ethical and responsible press is that its processes are fair, swift, inexpensive and efficient. The introduction of lawyers into such a process would derogate from every one of those advantages. The Council would become just like the courts: slow and cumbersome, and tied down in procedural debates. To maintain its speed and effectiveness, punitive outcomes need to be avoided.

What of the publication of a finding? In a free press, the best way to carry forward a debate is in the marketplace of ideas. The publication of a Press Council finding, the informed opinion of the newspaper's peers, and of members of the public, helps inform that marketplace. The Council's findings frequently explore the ethical issues involved. What is the expectation of privacy in various situations? Where does the public interest fall? Was there an ability to give an informed consent? Was there fairness and balance in the reporting? According a survey of complainants carried out by the Council, they see the publication of an adjudication that gives their side of the story as a good outcome.

And editors? One editor has told us that he would rather pay a $25,000 fine than have to publish an adverse adjudication. They hate being told they were wrong, and having to publish that fact in their own newspaper.

In addressing whether the published adjudication is a sufficient "punishment", the Council has also been addressing concerns that some newspapers seek to "hide" the adjudication by not giving them adequate prominence. To deal with these concerns, the Council is working on standards for publication of findings: the use of a consistent font; the use of the Council's logo to make them stand out; the placement of them in a regular place within a publication; the use of prominent pointers.

This more regular formatting of decisions, together with a more consistent noting of when the Council has intervened to mediate a settlement, should help make the reading public more aware of the Press Council's involvement in the move towards a more responsible press. 


Case studies

If there is time I will look at some examples of the sort of matters that have been the subject of complaints. I will give a couple of examples from a few categories and briefly discuss what are the issues. The Council has been conducting case studies seminars with university journalism students over the past few years and these are some of the cases we have used.





What is a reasonable expectation of privacy? In your own home? At a nightclub?

Public figure vs private person?

Consent vs informed consent?


Confronting images of crimes or accidents



What standard do readers expect? When are confronting images justified?

Does colour make it worse – more immediate?

Local incidents vs "foreign carnage"? Does knowing the people make it worse?

Offensive material




Can the Council be an arbiter of language?

Should it judge potentially offensive headlines in the light of the photos and article?

How serious is serious?


Statement of Principles

To assist the public and the press, the Australian Press Council has laid down the broad principles to which it is committed.

First, the freedom of the press to publish is the freedom, and right, of the people to be informed. These are the justifications for upholding press freedom as an essential feature of a democratic society. This freedom includes the right to publish the news, without fear or favour, and the right to comment fairly and responsibly upon it.

Second, the freedom of the press is important more because of the obligation it entails towards the people than because of the rights it gives to the press. Freedom of the press carries with it an equivalent responsibility to the public. Liberty does not mean licence. Thus, in dealing with complaints, the Council will give first and dominant consideration to what it perceives to be in the public interest.

The Council does not lay down rules by which publications should govern themselves. However, in considering complaints, the Council will have regard for these general principles.

1.    Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced. They should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers either by omission or commission.

2.    Where it is established that a serious inaccuracy has been published, a publication should promptly correct the error, giving the correction due prominence.

3.    Where individuals or groups are a major focus of news reports or commentary, the publication should ensure fairness and balance in the original article. Failing that, it should provide a reasonable and swift opportunity for a balancing response in an appropriate section of the publication.

4.    News and comment should be presented honestly and fairly, and with respect for the privacy and sensibilities of individuals. However, the right to privacy is not to be interpreted as preventing publication of matters of public record or obvious or significant public interest. Rumour and unconfirmed reports should be identified as such.

5.    Information obtained by dishonest or unfair means, or the publication of which would involve a breach of confidence, should not be published unless there is an over-riding public interest.

6.    Publications are free to advocate their own views and publish the bylined opinions of others, as long as readers can recognise what is fact and what is opinion. Relevant facts should not be misrepresented or suppressed, headlines and captions should fairly reflect the tenor of an article and readers should be advised of any manipulation of images and potential conflicts of interest.

7.    Publications have a wide discretion in publishing material, but they should balance the public interest with the sensibilities of their readers, particularly when the material, such as photographs, could reasonably be expected to cause offence.

8.    Publications should not place any gratuitous emphasis on the race, religion, nationality, colour, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, illness, or age of an individual or group. Where it is relevant and in the public interest, publications may report and express opinions in these areas.

9.    Where the Council issues an adjudication, the publication concerned should publish the adjudication, promptly and with due prominence.


Notes on the Principles

1     For the purposes of these principles, 'public interest' is defined as involving a matter capable of affecting the people at large so they might be legitimately interested in, or concerned about, what is going on, or what may happen to them or to others.

2     The Council interprets "due prominence" as requiring the publication to ensure the retraction, clarification, correction, explanation or apology has the effect, as far as possible, of neutralising any damage arising from the original publication, and that any published adjudication is likely to be seen by those who saw the material on which the complaint was based.

General Press Release No. 246

(i) Reporting of Suicide

The Press Council is in sympathy with attempts by governmental and other bodies to curb the rate of suicide in Australia, particularly amongst young people.  It calls upon the press to continue exercising care and responsibility in reporting matters of suicide and mental illness.

The Council notes that relatively little Australian research has been conducted on suicide.  Most reviews reported so far are based on overseas experience, but the findings are inconclusive. 

Some researchers claim that an association exists between media portrayal of suicide and actual suicide, and that in some cases the link is causal.  Others, on the other hand, suggest that increased reporting of suicide can act as a deterrent to people at risk, and can draw attention to the social problems that may lead to the contemplation of suicide.

The Council believes that most papers are aware of the desirability of treating suicide with restraint, and of avoiding:

·    Adding to the pain of relatives and friends of the deceased;

·    Any reporting which might encourage copy-cat suicides or self harm;

·    Unnecessary reference to details of method or place of a suicide:

·    Language or presentation which trivialises, romanticises, or glorifies suicide, particularly in papers which target a youth readership;

·    Loose or slang use of terms to describe various forms of mental illness, and the risk of stigmatising vulnerable people that may accompany such labels.

The Council also strongly commends to editors the suggestion that articles dealing with suicide, when they are deemed necessary, should include reference to the counselling services available to people in emotional distress and to their families, with contact addresses and phone numbers.

The Council recognises there are exceptions where these desirable aims may be outweighed by the pressure of news and public interest. 

Suicides are generally not reported in newspapers, but mass suicides, suicides by public figures, bizarre cases, the continuing debate around voluntary euthanasia, research and statistical analysis, and other aspects of suicide and mental illness are all legitimate matters of public interest and concern.

Precise rules or guidelines, as advocated by some groups, cannot take adequate account of such exceptions.  Instead, the Press Council prefers to encourage responsible approaches in the industry to the reporting of suicide and mental illness, and consultation with reputable associations, research centres, counselling services and health authorities when seeking comment for articles on these issues.

(iiii) Opinion Polls

Opinion testing and polls have become an increasingly important source of news stories in all the media.  The Press Council has long provided guidelines on such reporting to help both the press and the public get the maximum information from any published poll.

Many papers and magazines do provide the sort of information about poll-taking that the Council advocates, often in the form of a panel alongside the main report.  The Council appreciates that tabloid papers and others may find space considerations restricting the amount of background information that can be given, but clearly a bedrock of who conducted the poll among whom is essential.  In case of polls with a marked political content, more information is needed.

The public needs to be able to judge properly the value of the poll being reported.

The Press Council believes that reports should as far as possible include the following details:

1.   The identity of the sponsor (if any) of the survey.

2.   The exact wording of the question(s) asked.

3.   A definition of the population from which sample was drawn.

4.   The sample size and method of sampling.

5.   Which results were based on only part of the sample: e.g. men or women; adherents of particular political parties; and the base number from which percentages were derived.

6.   Name of the organisation that carried out the survey.

Additionally, the following information may also be included:

1.    How and where the interviews were carried out: in person, in homes, by telephone, by mail, in the street, or whatever.

2.    Date when the interviews were carried out.

3.    Who carried out the poll, e.g. trained interviewers, telephonists, reporters etc.

When reporting ring-in or internet polls (i.e. those where readers are given a number or address to register a vote), it should be made clear that, as the results have been generated by self-selected respondents, and not by proper statistical sampling, they are not necessarily representative of the whole population. A distinction in reporting should be made between ‘phone-in polls’, where people are invited to call in, and ‘phone-out polls’, where people are phoned and asked their opinion. 

In reporting the results of phone-in or internet polls, expressions such as "most people" and "the public" should be avoided if likely to give a misleading impression that the poll results are representative of public opinion. Well-organised statistically related polls are clearly likely to be more reliable, and the conclusions drawn likely to be more accurate.  The methodology may well need to be explained to convince the readership.

From time to time the question of opinion poll reporting on political outcomes is brought up, with disappointed political advocates calling for some limitation on media reporting at politically sensitive times.   The Press Council is firmly against any such limitations; the public has a right to known and a right to speak and comment freely.

General Press Release No. 248

Reporting of “race”

The Australian Press Council often receives complaints about the reporting of the race, colour, ethnicity and nationality of individuals or groups, and these raise important questions about the responsibility of the press in our multicultural society.

In the broadest terms, the Council has found that the tone and context of such reporting are usually the crucial elements in deciding whether its principles have been breached. 

The Council’s principles state: “Publications should not place gratuitous emphasis on the race, religion, nationality, colour, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, illness, or age of an individual or group. Nevertheless, where it is relevant and in the public interest, publications may report or express opinions in these areas".

An obvious case where reference to a person’s physical characteristics or ethnic background is relevant, or in the public interest, is when they are part of police descriptions of wanted suspects. Thus is particularly so when the suspects are regarded as violent and dangerous. When a person’s physical characteristics or ethnic background are tendered as relevant evidence in court, they are then matters of public record. 

The question of race and ethnicity is a difficult one. In the strict biological sense, "race" is the subject of complex scientific debate and particular care should be taken when describing somebody as being of “mixed race”, unless it is reporting direct quotes or self-description. However, there is no doubt that people are often perceived, and perceive themselves to be, members of a race in a broadly cultural sense. Ethnic identity, too, is sometimes difficult to define.

There is also the danger of using the term "race" where no such race exists; there is no 'Jewish race', equally there is no 'British race' nor 'French race'.  Another danger is to accept too readily the race labels used by racist groups in hate campaigns; such labels should be examined carefully and critically.

The Council is principally concerned about references to race, colour, ethnicity or nationality which promote negative stereotypes in the community. It acknowledges that the question of stereotypes is not cut and dried, and much depends on the context.

The Council in principle condemns gratuitous use of offensive slang terms for minority groups. However, if someone controversially used such expressions, a publication may well be justified in reporting them in direct quotes. The Council also generally believes that the use of such terms is permissible in opinion articles, when it is to make a serious point, and sometimes in humorous articles and satire. But here again the boundaries are usually determined by tone and context.

The Council also accepts that some international situations are extremely difficult to report or comment on without causing offence to different groups in the community. For example, referring to the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” might offend some readers.  But referring to it simply as “Macedonia” might offend others.  The Israeli-Palestinian and Northern Ireland conflicts are other obvious examples where deep-rooted passions among readers from various backgrounds are easily inflamed, even by impartial reporting. 

In the Council's view, in general, the press needs to show more sensitivity in reporting issues when minority groups are perceived in the community to be more "different" or when they are the subject of particular public debate.

Reporting Guidelines

Reporting Elections

Complaints to the Australian Press Council about material appearing in newspapers have obliged the Council to consider a number of issues relating to the rights and duties of the print media in reporting election campaigns. Some of the matters dealt with are applicable to other media.


Newspaper bias

In general, the experience of the Council is that all parties in election campaigns tend to complain about bias on the part of the media and frequently about the same newspaper! The Council has received, and dealt with, significant complaints alleging bias. But this is rare. As research commissioned by the Council in 2006-2007 showed, the print media are not generally partisan in their coverage of elections. This is specifically true in regard to news reports.

The Council has said that it upholds the right of a newspaper to have its own political position; to accept certain beliefs and policies and to reject others; and to favour the election of one party and to oppose the election of another. However, the Council has emphasised strongly that newspapers that profess to inform the community about its political and social affairs are under an obligation to present to the public a reasonably comprehensive and accurate account of public issues.

As a result, the Council believes that it essential that a clear distinction be drawn between reporting the facts and stating opinion. A paper's editorial viewpoints and its advocacy of them must be kept separate from its news columns.


Unfairness and lack of balance

This issue particularises the matters set out above. The claims that are made relate to particular news items that candidates feel unfairly presents their position. They are judged on the same basis as any other complaint about unfairness or imbalance.

It is common for a newspaper to run a feature on candidates and invite them to present their views on topics or outline their policies. It is important that this type of article treat the parties fairly. Generally equal space should be provided to them. If photographs are to be published all should be given the chance to provide a copy and the photographs should be of equivalent quality. A candidate should be sought out to provide comment if that opportunity is being provided to his or her rivals. However, the Council has accepted the argument that where there are a large number of candidates seeking election, a newspaper can be selective in whom it approaches and can limit itself to the candidates that it considers have a chance of success.

The timing of material is another very important issue, especially for non-daily papers. Newspapers need to be wary about publishing material critical of candidates at a time when there would be no opportunity, before the election, for the candidate to supply a balancing response.


Publication of letters

The selection of letters for publication is an editor's prerogative. But editors need to take particular care during election periods, when attempts to misuse the letters column can be more common. There are two matters that have come to the attention of the Council in relation to which editors should be on guard. One is the writing of letters under a false name. Normal newspaper practice should address this issue. The other is the practice apparently used by some political parties of having party members flood papers with letters dealing with a particular topic where the letter has been written by the party itself.

Without suggesting that the practice of editing letters is inappropriate, care should be taken in editing letters from candidates to avoid allegations that the changes misrepresent the candidate's position. It is much wiser to agree with the candidate the form the letter should take for publication. If agreement is not forthcoming, the paper can decline to publish the letter.


Newspaper policies during elections

Many newspapers have adopted particular positions during election periods, the most common of which, particularly among community newspapers, has been the non-publication of letters from candidates. The council believes that such policies are a matter for the newspaper itself to develop. However, when such policies are taken, it is incumbent on publications to advise their readers, with due prominence, of the existence of the policy and to stick by that policy throughout the election period.

* Jack R Herman is the Executive Secretary of the Australian Press Council, a position he has held since April 1994. This speech was prepared for the Tenth Anniversary Conference of the Hong Kong Press Council, September 2010.