Fact and opinion articles will be subject to the same standards of accuracy and fairness under new Press Council standards to take effect from August 1.

“One of  the impacts of digital publishing has been … for news reports to include a lot of opinion, and for opinion pieces to include a lot of factual allegations. We’ve taken view that it needed to be emphasised that facts have to be subject to the same tests of accuracy in whatever type of article they appear. And also, expressions of opinion can’t be based on significant errors of facts, or through omitting key facts,” Press Council chair Julian Disney told Crikey.

It’s the first major change to the principles in almost 20 years, and it is intended to promote a more practical set of journalistic guidelines. “The new guidelines are eight sentences — 200 words all up — so there’s not going to be much excuse for not knowing about them,” Disney said. “That’s very important if we’re going to have a practical impact on media standards. Our adjudications have some impact, but the greater impact comes from the standards.”

Part of the problem with the old standards, Disney says, was that they were lofty and utopian, and this often made their enforcement a matter of discretion. “On the face of it, some of these new standards may appear less strict. But we think it’s very important for our credibility for us to set standards where we’ll uphold complaints if they are breached.”

The need to account for digital norms was another factor behind the new guidelines. While the BuzzFeeds of the world are not members of the Australian Press Council (though many Australian-based digital publishers, such as NineMSN, Mumbrella and Crikey, are), they are having an impact on journalistic norms at more traditional publications, Disney says. “The competitive pressures arising from online publishing tends to confuse the old reporting/opinion distinctions, and to lead to more flamboyant reporting, including the tendency to publish without checking facts.”

Those who publish first or wholly online sometimes assume that as long as any errors are corrected on the article, the problem is fixed. But Disney says unless something is a rolling news story, it’s unlikely readers will return to the same article to see the correction. New publishing channels will need new ways of dealing with errors, he says.

To this end, the Press Council will next year release a set of specific guidelines around online publishing, after a consultation process with the major players in the sector. Asked what the biggest challenge for the Press Council was, Disney, whose term ends in January 2015, nominated the need to engage with the new digital publishers. “The problems aren’t just with them, of course — there are problems of poor standards in many areas of the traditional media, too. We need to ensure there is a greater acknowledgement of the need to comply with our standards, and indeed, with their own internal codes. There’s plenty of instances where that isn’t happening.”

It’s been a difficult few years for the Press Council. It is often criticised for being a toothless tiger, and the Finkelstein Inquiry into media regulation recommended it be abolished, replaced by a one-stop shop to do the job of both the Council and the Australian Communications and Media Authority, which deals with broadcast media complaints. After this, the council, which is funded by the major media print organisations, had its funding doubled in 2012. Members also committed to giving four years’ notice before withdrawing from the council.

Disney, chairman of the council since 2009, has overseen all of this, as well as the upheaval in print media and the rise in internet publishing, which have all brought about new and potentially less considered ways of doing journalism.

As younger journalists face increasingly important reporting duties without as much editorial support as has traditionally been the case, the Press Council has taken on a training role, issuing specific guidelines about suicide reporting and, released yesterday, guidelines about contacting patients in hospitals. “The general principles will be applied through a new series of specific standards,” Disney said. “Over the long term, these will be of greater practical significance. We’re keeping them very brief. The two we’ve done are very short, and will be available in digital form. We want them readily available when journalists and editors need to refer to them.”