Sometimes the expression “better late than never” is just plain wrong. Case in point: An Australian newspaper, the Port Stephens Examiner, published a letter to the editor praising bike paths in the community. The problem, however, is the author of the letter has been dead for two years.
So what happened? How did the letter end up with a dead man’s name on it? It turned out the newspaper accidentally republished a 2009 letter to the editor by the man, Bill Broadhead, thinking it was current. His family was upset, finding the publication insensitive and misleading.
His son, Scott Broadhead, complained to the newspaper, and then to the Australian Press Council because the newspaper never responded to his complaints. Now, the Port Stephens Examiner has apologized to the family, offered to publish an apology in print, and instituted a new policy requiring staff to contact people who submit letters to the editor before publishing.
The newspaper told the press council the letter was published as an “honest mistake” and unpublished it after hearing from the press council with Broadhead’s complaint. Essentially, the Examiner argued that a series of communication and technical errors were at fault — first, the 2009 letter oddly arrived in the editor’s e-mail in Oct. 2016 and second, there were “problems with the communication system resulting partly from new staff” that prevented the newspaper from responding to Broadhead.
“The Council accepts that the editor made a mistake in missing the actual date on the letter, and on the information available, the Council is unable to determine how the email incorporating the letter appeared in the publication’s letters inbox in 2016,” the press council ruled. “Nonetheless, the Council considers that the publication of the letter suggested the author of the letter was alive, had recently offered his congratulations on the pathways to Port Stephens Council rather than just the Mayor, was recently impressed by the maintenance of the paths, and that this was the first time this letter had been published.”
iMediaEthics has written to the Examiner to ask if and when it will publish an apology and if it has learned how the 2009 e-mail was marked as new in 2016.
The press council ruled the Examiner misled readers and failed to provide “adequate remedial action.” The Examiner is a community newspaper published by Fairfax Media in Port Stephens, Australia, about a hundred miles away from Sydney.