Covid stories and social media campaigns drive 50% increase in complaints to press ombudsman

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There was a 50% increase in complaints to the Office of the Press Ombudsman last year, largely due to coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The bureau considered a total of 527 complaints in 2021, down from 347 the previous year, with about 200 of last year’s complaints relating to pandemic coverage.

Two of the Covid-related complaints were upheld – both relating to privacy issues – with a further five complaints upheld in other matters.

Of note in Covid-related complaints is the use of social media campaigns encouraging people to complain about specific items.

Case officer Bernie Grogan notes in the Press Ombudsman’s 2021 report, published today, that “the common thread running through the majority of complaints received about stories about Covid-19 was that they were the subject of a fairly vigorous Facebook campaign by an anonymous Facebook group.

“The Facebook group has provided the text of complaints to be submitted to the Office regarding a number of articles and urged subscribers to file a complaint with the Press Ombudsman.

“While there is no rule that complaints cannot be filed in this manner, there is no benefit to such campaigns, since the Bureau has a long established policy, when it receives multiple complaints about an article, handling all complaints by establishing a “main” complainant.

“Multiple complaints submitted via social media campaigns only hinder the effective and efficient functioning of the complaints process.”

National newspaper coverage drew a total of 275 complaints last year.

Press Council chairman Rory Montgomery, who took office in March this year, said he believed the press had “served Ireland very well in this crisis, at a time when the risks and the downsides of an over-reliance on social media are really visible.

Outgoing Press Ombudsman Peter Feeney. Photo: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

The Office of the Press Ombudsman investigates complaints about newspapers (print and online), magazines and some online-only publications. It is independent of the government and the media.

Member media organizations abide by the Press Council’s Code of Practice, which lists 11 principles which, combined, act as a set of standards for responsible publishing.

Decisions are posted on the Press Council’s website once the process is complete, including a period during which either party can appeal an initial decision.

Publishers are required to publish decisions that are confirmed to them and may, if they wish, publish those that are not confirmed.

Complaints against the Irish Examiner

Recent decisions involving the Irish Examiner have upheld the distinction between opinion pieces and news items.
Recent decisions involving the Irish Examiner have upheld the distinction between opinion pieces and news items.

The five most recent complaints against the Irish Examiner have been dismissed (including three in 2021 and two so far this year).

An important feature of a number of these recent rulings was to maintain the distinction between opinion pieces and news items, i.e. people are allowed to express strong opinions and get them published, even when another person may strongly disagree with that opinion or find it offensive.

The opinions expressed in these articles must be sincere, not motivated by malice and must be supported by personal experience and/or evidence.

They should also be clearly marked to the reader as opinion pieces. By repeatedly defending complaints about such coins over the past year, the Irish Examiner was able to demonstrate that these standards were applied.

The decisions can be read here:

March 2021: Greyhound Action Ireland and the Irish Examiner, regarding a Q&A article with a greyhound breeder.

October 2021: Mr Ken Byrne and the Irish Examiner, regarding a news article on Covid numbers.

November 2021: A Person and the Irish Examiner, regarding an opinion piece on conversion therapy and hormone treatments.

March 2022: Mr. Hermann Kelly and the Irish Examiner, on an opinion piece on the far right and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

April 2022: An author and the Irish Examiner, regarding a book review.

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