Publications reporting on a breaking news story with initial uncertainty about the nature of the incident must nevertheless be able to demonstrate that they have taken appropriate care over the accuracy of what is published, the Independent Press Standards Organisation has held.
It upheld various complaints – dealt with en masse – that that Mail Online breached Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code of Practice, covering accuracy, with an article headlined, “BREAKING NEWS: ‘Gunshots fired’ as armed police surround Oxford Circus tube station and shoppers flee ‘after lorry ploughs into pedestrians'” published on 24 November last year.
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The story – reporting on an ongoing incident at Oxford Circus which was at that time being treated as a possible terror attack – detailed comments made on social media by individuals who were at Oxford Circus.
It included screenshots of a number of tweets from members of the public as well as the British Transport Police.
The story said armed police had arrived “amid reports of gunshots,” and reproduced one tweet which said: “There is a lorry stopped on the pavement in Oxford Street, police all around it and blood on the floor.”
It also said another member of the public had tweeted that there were “rumours of shooting and a lorry.”
The headline and a link to the article also appeared on its official Twitter page.
Complainants said the article and headline were inaccurate – there was no evidence to suggest a lorry had “ploughed into pedestrians”, which had not been confirmed by police and was based on one tweet, which was unrelated to this ongoing incident, and was published by an individual some ten days before the incident at Oxford Circus.
Complainants said people retweeted the article many times, and that although the article was amended and the tweet deleted, Mail Online had not published a correction with the story or on Twitter.
Mail Online emphasised that it was reporting on a major ongoing incident. It acknowledged that publications had a responsibility to report such events accurately, but also highlighted the importance of quickly disseminating new information as witness reports and official statements emerged, to give the public the best understanding of the situation.
It was quickly spotted internally that the article’s claim that a lorry might be involved was not in keeping with the majority of witness reports – and this detail was removed from the article seven minutes after it was published, with the tweet being deleted from its Twitter page 11 minutes after publication.
An internal investigation found that numerous reporters monitoring social media at the time mentioned reading a tweet that a lorry was involved, it said.
It acknowledged that one tweet was not contemporaneous, and provided the timestamp of the other tweet reported on in the article, which referred to “rumours of a lorry” while the incident was ongoing.
Many initial reports about the incident turned out to be inaccurate, and as the news story developed the article was updated accordingly, it said.
When other media outlets contacted it about its report later that evening, it issued a statement acknowledging its error, which was widely published by other publications, Mail Online said.
Also, after becoming aware of complaints to IPSO, and six days after the article appeared and after its internal investigation, it published an apology acknowledging the error as a standalone correction in the Corrections and Clarifications column for 24 hours, as well as adding a footnote correction, apologising for any distress caused, to the article.
Its Twitter account published a link to the full correction, to ensure that readers who saw the inaccuracy through their Twitter account alone were aware of it and of its subsequent apology.
IPSO’s complaints committee acknowledged Mail Online’s position that in an ongoing situation such as this, the media played an important role in informing the public of emerging developments. “However, even in such circumstances, a publication must still demonstrate that it has taken appropriate care over the accuracy of the information it publishes,” it said.
At the time of publication there were no reports from the police to support the position that a lorry was involved in the incident, but the article and the headline made clear that these reports were based on eyewitness accounts at the scene.
“While the publication was aware of at least one contemporaneous report published on social media that suggested a lorry may have been involved, the specific claims that ‘witnesses at the scene described seeing a lorry on the pavement surrounded by police’, and that ‘the pavement was said to be covered in blood’, reported in the article were from a tweet about an unrelated event,” the committee said.
“Although the reference to a lorry was removed completely from the article and the headline seven minutes after it was published, these claims were significant, as they mischaracterised the nature of the incident and misrepresented reports from eye-witnesses.”
Where the time stamp of the tweet made it clear this was not a contemporaneous account, the publication had failed to take care over the accuracy of the article and the information in the tweet.
Editorial staff quickly became aware that the reference to a lorry reportedly being involved in the incident within the article was not in keeping with the majority of eye witness accounts, and this reference was deleted within a short time from both the article and Mail Online’s Twitter page.
This claim was not repeated in the publication’s ongoing coverage, which was updated frequently as more details became known.
The Committee welcomed Mail Online’s internal investigation and publication of a correction which acknowledged the initial inaccuracy, made readers aware of the correct position, and apologised for any distress caused.
It also welcomed the publication’s action in tweeting a link to the published correction, as it acknowledged that a number of people had become aware of the inaccurate report through social media.
The prompt publication of a standalone correction and apology, which was also tweeted by the publication’s Twitter account, as well as the publication of a footnote correction to the article was sufficient to meet the requirement for a correction.