Can news media publish photos of car crash victims?

The Privacy Act doesn’t apply to the collection and reporting of news and current affairs, so we aren’t able to investigate complaints about the actions of newspapers and other news media. But the news media are subject to Codes of Practice that include privacy standards.

If you want to make a complaint about the actions of the news media, the three industry bodies that regulate the news media are the Press Council(external link), the Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) (external link)and the Online Media Standards Authority(external link).

The publication of a photo of a person who died in a car crash taken from a publicly accessible webpage (such as Facebook) can breach media privacy standards. The publication of private material in a manner that would be considered highly offensive to the person affected could also be a privacy breach, depending on the circumstances.

Here's how the BSA dealt with a complaint against a news broadcaster over how it used publicly viewable photos sourced from Facebook in its coverage of a fatal bus accident.(external link) In this case, the BSA upheld the complaint that the broadcaster had breached the privacy of the victims and their families. It noted that where social media content is re-published on another platform, such as broadcast media, privacy considerations should be considered afresh, particularly in sensitive circumstances.

The news media are subject to other privacy laws that limit publicity where a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the circumstances. One couple sued news media who filmed them being extricated from a car wreck (Andrews v TVNZ, High Court, 2006) but on the facts of that case, the claim did not succeed because the filming did not show the couple “in a bad light”. 

You might also want to read out blog posts on privacy and the news media. You can find them here(external link) and here(external link).

The Privacy Act does apply to other news gatherers, such as ‘citizen journalists’. While there is a Privacy Act exemption that allows personal use, that exemption does not allow personal information to be published if an ordinary person would consider it to be “highly offensive”. There is also an exception for publishing personal information that is already publicly available as long as it’s not unfair or unreasonable to do so in the circumstances.