Civil Law

By Chloe Lyons


Misidentification Equals Defamation – The Importance of Accurate News Reporting

In our chaotic and fast-paced environment, news channels race to be the first to release a story, and we, as consumers, want every detail to be at the click of a finger. However, information spreads like wildfire, and as such, the role of news reporters has become more crucial than ever. News reporters are tasked with informing the public about current affairs and are responsible for sharing accurate information. In these circumstances, news companies are vulnerable to defaming someone if the information they share is not meticulously fact-checked and verified. In fact, in the past 3 years, ABC alone has spent over $700,000 in defamation case settlements, with total legal costs for these proceedings exceeding $1.94 million.

One critical aspect of this verification process for news reporters is checking the identification of individuals involved in a story. Misidentifying someone and broadcasting this on national television can be very damaging for the individual and highly costly for the news channel. A perfect example of this is Ben Cohen with Channel 7– the young man who was mistakenly identified by Channel 7 as the perpetrator of the devastating Bondi Junction stabbing attack earlier this year. Channel 7 named him the “40-year-old lone wolf attacker”, and since then, his name has been circulating among anti-Semitic social media accounts. He has received death threats and other online abuse, and his reputation was momentarily brought into disrepute. Mr Cohen commenced proceedings against the Seven Network and has since reached a confidential settlement in his defamation claim. Had the Seven Network correctly verified the information that they received, they would have quickly realised that Mr Cohen was, in fact, not the perpetrator. However, in the race to be the first to reveal the identity of the attacker, they failed to do this, leading to a (likely) costly settlement, damage to Mr Cohen’s reputation and ultimately, loss of public trust in the news channel.

Another notable example of costly misidentification by a news broadcaster occurred in November 2021 after the abduction of Cleo Smith in Western Australia. Terrance Flowers, a Nyamal man from the Pilbara living in Karratha, was incorrectly identified as Ms Smith’s accused abductor instead of Terence Kelly. Mr Flower’s Facebook name was Terrance Kelly, and he used his mother’s surname. Seven News released unblurred images taken from Mr Flowers’ Facebook page with “Terrance Kelly” as the caption, mistakenly identifying him as Ms Smith’s abductor. As a consequence of the misidentification, Mr Flowers experienced hate and threats from individuals around Australia, and this resulted in his hospitalisation for a severe panic attack. Network Seven also settled with Mr Flowers for an undisclosed amount in his defamation claim.

News reporters must be extremely cautious when operating under tight deadlines to avoid unintentionally committing defamation. Properly verifying the identity of individuals involved in a news story is seemingly obvious, yet a very fundamental step in ensuring the accuracy of the information being reported.

To avoid misidentification that may give rise to defamation, reporters should cross-verify the individual’s likely identity with other sources. This could include checking public records, consulting witnesses or viewing social media profiles.

For example, Terrance Flowers was located in Karratha, whereas Terence Kelly lived in Carnarvon. Furthermore, Channel Seven knew that the Bondi Junction attacker was a 40-year-old, and Ben Cohen was only a 20-year-old university student. If Seven News had cross-checked the identities of these two individuals with other information at hand, it would have become apparent that they were mistaking the identities of the perpetrators of these two tragic incidents.

The responsibility of accurately reporting the News cannot be overstated, particularly when published by huge media conglomerates. Checking the identification of individuals involved in news stories is a crucial step in avoiding defamation, ensuring the integrity of the information being disseminated, and providing public trust in the media. However, it seems that far too often, news reporters are forgoing their due diligence in an effort to be the first to expose a story or reveal the identity of those involved. This results in significant harm to those misidentified.

Importantly modern society should be mindful of social media defamation as well as news channels. Misidentifying someone in a social media post can similarly cause detriment to a person’s reputation and result in an action in defamation – with significant and costly consequences for the perpetrator.

The bottom line is that if you misidentify someone in a story and publish this on a news channel or, similarly, on a social media platform, this may harm that person’s reputation and result in an action of defamation. On the other hand, if you believe someone has misidentified you in a story and this constitutes hurtful or damaging published content, then you may succeed in receiving compensation.

At Aulich Civil Law, we understand the complexities of defamation law and have succeeded in representing our clients in various proceedings against those who have defamed them. Please reach out if you feel that you may have a claim for defamation. Alternatively, if you have been accused of making a defamatory statement, our team will be able to assist in defending such an action. After representing many clients in high-profile defamation proceedings, we understand the complexities of these matters and the new developments in this area, and we are confident in our ability to help you reach the best possible outcome.