Inquest computer note-taking causes accuracy breach

Gloucester daily The Citizen has been found to have breached the Editors’ Code with an inaccurate inquest report which was based on notes typed directly into a computer.

Denise Brown complained to the Press Complaints Commission over two stories that appeared in the paper headlined ‘Dog’s killer found dead’and ‘Man who shoved dog off a cliff kills himself’published on 24 March 2011 in The Citizen

The articles were based on an inquest into the suicide of her son, who had previously been jailed for six months after killing a dog in 2006.

She claimed the reports breached clause 1 (accuracy) and clause 5 (intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

Brown said claims that her son had “bragged about the incident to local youths’were wrong, as was a quote attributed to her stating her son had “wanted to get away from the Forest because he was becoming involved in the drink and drugs scene there”.

She also said the paper incorrectly reported her marital status and address, and felt the newspaper’s decision to highlight her son’s past – particularly the front page description of him as a “dog’s killer” – had intruded into her and her family’s grief.

She claimed the articles ‘suggested that her son had deserved what had happened to him”, according to a PCC adjudication released today, and contained excessive detail about the manner of his death.

In its defence the paper claimed that while it had no wish to upset a grieving family it was fully entitled to refer to his previous conviction as this was a matter of public record and was mentioned in the inquest.

But it admitted it was unable to corroborate most of the information which Brown had complained about because the court reporter had ‘transcribed the notes directly on to a computer and incorporated the information directly into the story without retaining the original notes”.

While the claim that Brown’s son had “bragged” about the act was published at the time of his conviction, The Ciziten accepted her marital status and address were incorrect and offered to publish a correction on all four points which had been raised – an offer she rejected.

The PCC said the articles had contained ‘basic errors’which indicated a ‘lack of sufficient care on the part of the newspaper”.

It also noted the fact that the paper couldn’t corroborate a quote attributed to the complainant via reporters’ notes, and found the overall manner of its coverage breached clause 1 of the code,

‘One lesson from this complaint for the editor, and the industry more widely, should be the need to retain contemporaneous notes as evidence for the accuracy of reporting,’the PCC said.

But the watchdog found the paper had not breached clause 5 of the code, stating that ‘the newspaper’s reference to the complainant’s son in the headline was an accurate, if bald, statement of his previous actions which had been reported at the time”.

Nor did it believe its reporting of the manner of the suicide represented ‘excessive detail”

“In the circumstances, it was certainly incumbent on the newspaper, under the terms of Clause 1 (ii), to publish a correction on the issues raised by the complainant, which it had offered to do,” The PCC said.

‘In the commission’s view, the newspaper’s proposal represented an offer of sufficient remedial action to the complaint under Clause 1. This correction should now be published – provided that the complainant does not object – following the commission’s adjudication.”

The PCC found that sufficient remedial action had been offered.

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