Media must be vigilant when using the term “autistic” to describe someone

AustralianPressCouncilOn November 23 of last year, an article entitled “Autistic man convicted of murdering WA mum” was published on the news.com.au website. The article has been a topic of debates since.

The article thoroughly discussed the conviction of an “autistic Perth man” for the murder of his mother. His mother’s body is still missing. The condition of the convicted was described in the lead of the article.  In addition to the lead, a paragraph was devoted to describe the posture and overall appearance of the man during the proceedings. A background of the case wherein the man underwent “psychiatric and psychological” tests ahead of conviction was also mentioned.

Seven months ago, there has been a discussion on the man’s state of health. There was a question if he was actually fit for trial. However, the complainant expressed disappointed over the description of the man as autistic since on the day of conviction, the judge did not mention the medical condition. The complainant found the prominence of autism references uncalled for as it may cause unnecessary judgments on the overall story of the case.

The publication on the other hand argued that it was necessary to mention the medical condition of the man since it has been the topic of early reports, especially during pre-trial. The publication also acknowledged the irrelevance of the medical condition to the verdict.

The Australian Press Council took into consideration the arguments of both sides. Since the medical condition is a key element during earlier decisions regarding the case, the references were grounded. However, since the medical condition was written in such a way that may have misguided some readers to believe that it may have been a significant cause of the crime, the complaint was upheld.

In April of this year, the Australian Press Council handled another case where parents complained that the Milton Ulladulla Times described their child as “autistic” while the diagnosis had not been confirmed. In there findings the Council reminded the media:

The Press Council emphasises that publications must take special care to ensure that medical information is correct before they publish it and that they are not unjustifiably breaching privacy.

Autism Daily Newscast discussed the responsibilities and role that media plays in the Alex Spourdalakis case in a previous report.