How to report on death responsibly in a digital age
A wealth of guidance is available for journalists on reporting death responsibly, from industry bodies as well as charities and other groups that work with the bereaved. And the development of online media means these guidelines are now being applied to new environments, such as social media.
This guide will bring together the latest advice from the Press Complaints Commission on how to work within the Editors’ Code of Practice and general ethical guidelines when reporting on a death, as well as specific guidelines from charity Samaritans on the reporting of suicide.
Recent research, carried out by Jackie Newton from Liverpool John Moores University and Dr Sallyanne Duncan from the University of Strathclyde, heard from the viewpoint of families and journalists, and offered some interesting findings.
As Newton told Journalism.co.uk, while not “every death knock is welcomed” research showed that some families “were very open to talking to the media”.
Using social media for content and contact
She also said that while their research found reporters had “very ethical attitudes” when it came to covering deaths, some families did feel “excluded” in some cases where journalists were using social media as a “short cut”.
Newspapers are expected to ask the same ethical questions about material garnered from social media as they are from any sourceStephen Abell
Director of the Press Complaints Commission Stephen Abell said “newspapers are expected to ask the same ethical questions about material garnered from social media as they are from any source”.
“For example the quality of the information, how private is it? Just because it appears publicly on someone’s Facebook site doesn’t mean it can automatically be used by a newspaper. Some people without really knowing make information available that is personal and it still retains the quality of privacy despite the fact it’s publicly available.”
He explained that the issue is one of context.
“There are pictures posted on Facebook in a certain context, often a communication between friends, jokes between friends, which if ripped out of that context and used to illustrate a story about a death could well raise a breach of Clause 5 of the code.”
He also outlined the use of platforms such as Facebook for contacting family members, which he said the Commission would treat “in the same way as a journalist knocking on the door or picking up the phone”.
“If they were asked to desist they shouldn’t return there,” he said.
“In lots of ways it raises a whole new raft of ethical issues in practical terms, but I think the ethical underpinning of all this is the same,” he said, adding that “no matter what the medium” there is a need to consider “the feelings of other people”.
I think it’s quite common now for newspapers to take innocuous information from Facebook sites that are publicly accessibleStephen Abell
“I think it’s quite common now for newspapers to take innocuous information from Facebook sites that are publicly accessible and I don’t think generally speaking there is a code problem with that.”
But he said “concerns will be raised” if actions go against privacy settings, if the context is taken away or “if it retains some quality of personal information”.
Sal Lalji, press and PR manager at Samaritans added, in reference to cases relating to suicide, that “when a person sets up their security parameters they don’t set them up with the idea that they’re going to be the centre of a story later on”.
“When a person dies if they’re at the centre of a news story it can actually be quite upsetting to see images from social networking sites that the media have taken, as these are not images that necessarily a bereaved family would like this individual to be remembered by.
“What we’d always say is please check with the family, with the Press Complaints Commission, with the police, if these images can be used.”
Carrying out a ‘death knock’ sensitively
Abell shared some advice for journalists who have been asked to carry out a ‘death knock’, as it is commonly referred to in the industry.
“A key point in terms of code is to make sure you’re not breaking the news of the death to the family, its always worth finding out from police the extent to which the family have been informed of the death.
“Be open straight away about who you are, why you’re there and giving the person a chance to say I don’t want to speak to you. If people are honest and open about their intentions, some people will wish to speak to them and some people won’t, and if they don’t then there’s a great need to respect that and inform the newsdesk that they don’t wish to speak.”
As Abell mentioned earlier, Clause 5 of the Editors’ Code of Practice is the area of the code which refers to “intrusion into grief or shock” which he explains is the “central part of the code when dealing with bereavement”.
“It’s an area the PCC has deliberately worked very hard on over the years because one of the things we face continually is people coming to us who have suffered terrible traumatic experiences and feel to some extent the press and media have made that experience worse.
“So Clause 5 talks specifically about handling publication sensitively. That’s a relatively subjective point but the idea is newspapers would be expected to be able to justify why they have behaved in a certain way and how they have taken steps to handle publication and enquiries sensitively.
“That can lead to various specifics. For example the PCC takes handling publication sensitively to mean that a newspaper should not report a death in a light-hearted fashion, or to include gratuitous or gory details.
“In terms of enquiries, it doesn’t expect journalists to break the news of a death to people and should take account of whether the family has been informed and take steps to find out if the family has been informed before either undertaking inquiries or publishing something.”
He added this is an “area of the code that actually places considerable burdens on the journalist and editor to think about matters before proceeding.”
PCC circulations of family requests
When it comes to cases where families do not wish to speak to the press, they may use the PCC to circulate this to the media. The body also issues guidance to Family Liaison Officers about “media attention following a death”.
Abell said that “it’s absolutely legitimate and right to report on the death of someone in the community” and “absolutely in the public interest that people know how members of the community have died”.
We certainly don’t start from the premise that it’s wrong for journalists to make enquiries or report about death, when quite the contrary is the caseStephen Abell
“We certainly don’t start from the premise that it’s wrong for journalists to make enquiries or report about death, when quite the contrary is the case.
“This guidance we issue goes to all the Coroners Courts, all the police forces in country. It says you may well wish to speak to the press, in which case here are things you might wish to know.
“If you don’t you can use the PCC to say you do not wish to speak to the press and the PCC has the ability to disseminate your request across the whole of the newspaper and magazine industry and to broadcasters.”
Reporting on suicide
A specific area within the issue of reporting a death is when a journalist is following up on a case of suicide.
Lalji told Journalism.co.uk about the considerations journalists need to make when dealing with a family which has suffered a death by suicide.
“When a person is bereaved by suicide it’s quite an intense form of mourning. They may be experiencing additional emotions because of the fact it’s a suicide. Another thing journalists must consider is a coroner’s report may not have come out yet, we may not know if the death was a suicide or not.
“There can often be as well as grief, feelings of shock, of guilt, of not being able to understand why this particular death has occurred and that can add to the vulnerability of the bereaved person.
“So journalists need to understand that when they’re asking questions there are things people might say at the moment of grief and shock because they’re trying to understand the situation at that point, rather than months later on down the line.”
She added that “when there’s media interest” in a death it “becomes quite public” and that this could “encourage negative feelings from the members of the family to the media”.
There may also be “suicidal feelings” being experiences by family members themselves, she said.
It’s really important journalists are aware how vulnerable these bereaved families are and make sure they’re supported at the same timeSal Lalji
“It’s really important journalists are aware how vulnerable these bereaved families are and make sure they’re supported at the same time.
“If an individual isn’t showing signs of grief or no visible signs of distress it may be that they’re dealing with their grief in different ways, it manifests in different forms in different people, so journalists must be aware of that and not interpret it as a lack of emotional response or caring.”
She also outlines the sorts of questions or comments journalists should avoid when interviewing family members who have lost someone through suicide.
“Try to avoid saying you know how they feel or you’ve been in a similar situation as each individual family or person’s grief is their own, so it’s not particularly helpful to the family.
“Don’t assume you know what they’re going through as it’s individual to each family.
“Avoid making any suggestions about the behaviour of the relatives or friends. if the families decide they don’t want to comment, avoid talking to neighbours or members of the local community who may be speculating about the situation.”
Another issue is the potential impact over-description in news reports can have on vulnerable people and the risk of ‘copycat suicides’.
“What copycat suicides are is when a vulnerable person is exposed to a method of suicide or an issue of suicide that then becomes something they recall when they themselves feel suicidal.”
She added that they find vulnerable people “will either latch on to a characteristic or identify with the individual or they will latch on to the methods of the suicide.”
“Both the code of practice from Ofcom and PCC address this identification of the methods, over excessive detail,” she said, adding that it is best to leave out descriptions which “are not relevant to the story”.