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Bereavement under the spotlight

Supporting people suddenly bereaved in high-profile cases

This briefing is produced by Brake, the road safety charity. It aims to provide information on how the media operate when reporting stories of sudden bereavement.

After a sudden death, engagement with the media can offer bereaved families an opportunity to express their grief and commemorate their loved one. The media can also provide an outlet for families to campaign for justice and seek to make changes.

However, there can be negatives to media involvement. Intrusion from journalists, insensitive headlines and inaccurate reporting can be very upsetting for a grieving family.

This report will provide guidance on interacting with the media, and explore the pros and cons of media engagement.

This report will cover:

• why the media reports stories of sudden deaths;
• how journalists source stories and interact with bereaved families;
• how the internal news process at a newspaper works; and
• advice for bereaved families giving an interview.

This report is based on the research findings and recommendations of Dr Sallyanne Duncan (senior lecturer in journalism, media and communication, University of Strathclyde) at a webinar for victim support professionals.

Research and background to media reporting of sudden deaths

What makes a story ‘newsworthy’?

Journalists have to make a judgement on a potential story, based on what its news value would be. The news agenda of a publication, both on a certain day and more generally, will also affect whether an article is published.

Following a review of the UK press, previous literature and their own experience as journalists, Harcup and O’Neill (2001, 2017) developed a list of requirements that news stories generally satisfy.[1], [2]

Stories must feature: conflict, drama, exclusivity, the power elite, celebrity, entertainment, surprise, bad news, good news, magnitude, relevance, follow-up, audio-visuals, shareability or the news organisation’s agenda.

News stories generally satisfy one or more of these requirements. Stories of sudden deaths often fulfil many of the above categories.

Why are sudden deaths so newsworthy?

Sudden deaths are often considered particularly newsworthy because of their dramatic content. Stories of sudden deaths have a potentially wide-reaching impact, and can lead to emotional responses from the public.

Walter et al. (1995) state that the newsworthiness of sudden deaths can be defined as stemming from their “extreme negativity as interruptions to the smooth flow of the daily round.”[3]

What tends to feature in a story on a sudden death?

Journalists will normally base their story around an extensive interview with family members. This may include the bereaved family’s emotional response to the death. The story will also cover details of the deceased’s life, their character and include information about the events that resulted in the death.[4] Alongside the written copy, the piece will often feature a photo of the deceased. If the article is featured online, it may also include family videos, or content taken from the social media accounts of those close to the person who has died.

How do journalists interact with bereaved families?

An interview following a sudden death can be emotive and challenging, for both the grieving family and the journalist.

In traumatic circumstances, most journalists will proceed with the utmost caution. Their role is to try and gather the story, not to cause upset. Journalists from local newspapers may have a particularly strong understanding of the impact of the death on a family and the community.

The news process: how journalists report sudden deaths

This section is adapted from interviews Dr Sallyanne Duncan held with three journalists who work for a daily national Scottish newspaper. The findings from the interviews were presented during the webinar.

Why are stories of sudden deaths reported by the media?

  • By reporting the facts of a sudden death, journalists can prevent misinformation from spreading through social media and other forums.
  • Sudden deaths often occur in a public place. The public have an expectation that the facts will be made available, and journalists arguably have a duty to ensure that the community is informed.
  • By running stories on sudden deaths, journalists allow families to pay tribute to their loved one.

It has also been argued that families bereaved by a criminal act have a particular right to be included in media coverage. Media engagement can allow a family to campaign, get answers and seek closure.[5]

How do journalists report sudden deaths?

  • For journalists, the best source for a story is the immediate family of the deceased. After a sudden death, this is who they will try and contact.
  • Journalists reporting on a personal story after a death will generally not have a pre-planned angle in mind. The story will develop from memories and stories shared in the interview.
  • Most news editors will trust journalists to take this approach.

Where and how do journalists source their stories?

Journalists usually find out about sudden deaths through press releases distributed by the police. These releases are formal and factual, providing clear information about what happened. As the information is publicly available, newspapers will generally run a story if they feel it is newsworthy, even if the family doesn’t want to be involved in the coverage.

To source a story further, journalists should first approach the immediate family. This could be by turning up on their doorstep, phoning them to arrange an interview, or contacting them via social media like Facebook and Twitter. If the family does not initially want to talk to the media, the journalist should leave their contact details, to allow the family to get in contact at a later date if they wish. Good, ethical journalists will not follow up with a family who have indicated that they do not want to talk to the press.

In cases where a bereaved family does not wish to talk to the media, journalists will use secondary sources such as neighbours in order to write a story. These sources are generally more distant and less well acquainted with the family. This can be seen as intrusive by bereaved relatives because the media have given a voice to someone who may not have known their loved one well.

Advice on engaging with the media

Interviews

Bereaved families may not have any prior media experience. Relatives might agree to an interview, without knowing in advance what questions the journalist wants to ask, or how material from this will be disseminated.[6]

If the family feels able to, a face-to-face interview is recommended. This allows for a more natural rapport with the journalist, and for the family to be more comfortable.

At the interview, the journalist will probably be accompanied by a photographer, who will take a photo of the grieving person or family.

Journalists will also often ask the family for a photo of the deceased, sometimes from their social media sites, to use in the story.

By selecting a picture, families can ensure that their loved one is represented in the way they would wish to be. Generally, media in the UK will aim to use positive images of the deceased, with an aim of showing them as they lived.[7]

Before the start of the interview, bereaved families should confirm with the journalist:

  • what questions they will be asked, and what areas the interview will cover;
  • what angle the story will have;
  • how they and their loved one will be portrayed;
  • how long the story will be, and where it will feature in the newspaper; and
  • if the story will also be printed online and promoted through social media.

Families should be aware that journalists will need to know facts during an interview. Questions on circumstances of a death will be asked sensitively, but gaining accurate detail is important.

If a bereaved person says something in an interview that they do not want to be published, they should call the journalist and tell them. Journalists will also be happy to hear from the family about any developments on the story.

How will the interview take place?

The interview will generally consist of an informal conversation between the family and journalist. Questions that could be asked include: “Tell us about your relative,” “Tell us your fondest memories of your loved one,” or “Would you like to speak about…?”

It is likely that the journalist will record the interview, so they can accurately transcribe it. A journalist might ‘gently probe’ around the circumstances of the death, but a bereaved person will also have the opportunity to say no, and to let a journalist know if there is anything they do not want to talk about.

The internal news process at a print/online media outlet

Once a journalist has conducted and written up the interview, the copy (written content of the article) will be passed on to their newspaper’s production team. This team sub-edits the text and completes other tasks, such as headline writing and publishing the story online. Journalists have no control over the story once the copy has been handed over to the production team.

Sub-editing should identify spelling mistakes and any legal or factual errors. However, it is possible that errors will occur during the production process, which can be frustrating for journalists. An insensitive headline may be selected, or the story length may be reduced if there are space constraints. This could potentially lead to a quote from the family or other information being removed.

Editorial decisions can also reduce the length of a story. On a busy news day, the story may be shortened to just cover the facts of the case, with limited input from the family. If a newspaper is aware that a rival publication also plans to run the story, they may have to shorten a longer story so that they can publish the piece before or at the same time as their competitor. This can be upsetting for a grieving family.

The Editors’ Code of Practice

Many newspapers adhere to the Editors’ Code of Practice, a set of rules all publications regulated by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) must follow. Within this code there are clear instructions for journalists working on stories involving bereavement.

This includes a clause on ‘Intrusion into grief or shock’, which states:

“In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.”[8]

The code also contains a clause on ‘Harassment’, which states that journalists:

“…must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them.”[9]

Guidelines are also in place to regulate the reporting of suicide.

Publications themselves, rather than individual journalists, sign up to the Editors’ Code of Practice. Freelance journalists are also required to adhere to the Code when writing stories for a publication which is signed up to it. The editor of a newspaper holds responsibility for ensuring their journalists are adhering to the code.

In any cases where editors at a newspaper do not ensure their journalists are following the Code, they are in breach of it. A complaint can then be made.

Positives and negatives of engaging with the media

It is important that bereaved families are made aware of the potential challenges and benefits of engaging with the media.

Challenges

Non-participation

If families do not participate with the media, they will be excluded from news coverage, but the story will likely be run regardless. Journalists who gain information on a story from other sources will be free to use these details, without seeking permission from bereaved family or friends.

This can be particularly problematic if journalists use distant sources such as neighbours and acquaintances, who had limited relationships with the deceased. Non-participation may also reduce the family’s ability to refute incorrect or negative opinions about them.[10]

Exclusion

In some cases, particularly where a death occurred in traumatic circumstances, reporters may choose not to contact a family out of fear that this will cause further upset. However, the story will still be published. Although the media outlet may feel this is the ethical decision to take, it denies families the opportunity to participate in reporting of their loved one’s death.

Issues may also arise if a family is expecting news coverage, but the media does not view the story as ‘newsworthy’. This can lead to families feeling neglected, and that their story does not have sufficient value to the press.

Intrusion

Deaths viewed as ‘newsworthy’ can receive widespread coverage. Families may be contacted by several journalists, and feel besieged by media attention. This extreme level of attention may not occur immediately, particularly if a story is originally covered by local media, and then picked up by national or international publications.

Social media

Journalists now frequently source content from social media sites, including comments and photos. Any publicly available material can be used in a story, and journalists may not feel that gaining content this way is unethical.[11] However, using content without permission can be very upsetting for bereaved families. Regulators, including the UK Press Complaints Commission and IPSO, have begun looking into this issue in recent years.

Inaccuracy

Journalists are constantly working to deadlines, and are under pressure to get stories produced quickly. This can lead to mistakes. Errors such as mis-spelling the deceased’s name can be very upsetting to a grieving family. The sub-editing process can also cause issues, if an inappropriate or sensationalist headline is selected for a sensitive piece.

Benefits

Personal input

Talking to a journalist allows families to have an element of control over the coverage. A family can personalise a story by sharing favourite anecdotes or by selecting a chosen photograph. Families also have the chance to correct any inaccuracies or misconceptions. By speaking to the media, a family has the opportunity to publicly acknowledge and discuss their loss.

Campaigning

After a sudden death, families may wish to campaign for justice, to raise awareness or to seek legislative changes. Through campaigning, families can aim to prevent other people from going through the same pain and loss that they have experienced.

The role of families can be important in achieving change.[12] Journalists may be able to assist with launching and publicising a campaign.

Helping overcome taboos

By discussing their grief, families can overcome societal taboos, helping to make conversation about bereavement easier.

Advice and conclusions

Sudden deaths are often, but not always, viewed as newsworthy by the media. This can provide both challenges and benefits to bereaved families. Being aware of how stories of sudden bereavement are reported, and the processes that lead to a story being published can help prepare grieving families for engagement with the media.

Key recommendations:

  • Journalists should provide their name, details of their publication and a business card to families. If they don’t, families should ask for this information.
  • Families can choose which publications they want to speak to. They do not have to accept every request for interview.
  • Most publications adhere to the Editors’ Code of Practice. Journalists should not repeatedly request interviews with a bereaved family.
  • It may be helpful for a trusted person, or intermediary organisation, to help manage a family’s liaison with the media.
  • It is completely understandable if a bereaved family does not want to speak to the press immediately. Journalists will be able to leave contact details for a family to get in touch when they are ready, although it is important to be aware that the story may only be covered at a later date if it still has ‘news value’.
  • Good journalists will be happy to have a short, initial chat with the family, and then follow this up with a longer conversation at a later date when they are ready.
  • Journalists work on the assumption that, through granting an interview, family members implicitly consent to the content being published.

About Dr Sallyanne Duncan

Sallyanne is a former journalist, and worked in the Scottish weekly press for a number of years. She is currently the programme director of the MLitt Digital Journalism degree at the University of Strathclyde. Her main research interest is in media reporting of trauma, death and bereavement. Sallyanne submitted evidence on media reporting of the bereaved to the Leveson Inquiry, and she has also revised the National Union of Journalists’ professional guidelines on media reporting of mental health and suicide. She has written a book on media reporting of death and personal tragedy, with her co-author Jackie Newton. It is called Reporting Bad News: Negotiating the boundaries between intrusion and fair representation in media coverage of death, published by Peter Lang in 2017.

References


[1] Harcup, T. and O’Neill, M. 2001. What Is News? Galtung and Ruge Revisited. Journalism Studies. [Online]. 2 (2), pp. 261-280. [Accessed 14/02/2019]. Available from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/14616700118449?needAccess=true

[2] Harcup, T. and O’Neill, M. 2017. What Is News? News Values Revisited (Again). Journalism Studies. [Online]. 18 (12), pp. 1470-1488. [Accessed 1/03/2019]. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1080/1461670X.2016.1150193

[3] Walter, T. et al. 1995. Death in the News: The Public Investigation of Private Emotion. Sociology. [Online]. 29 (4), pp. 579-596 [Accessed 05/02/2019]. Available from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0038038595029004002

[4] Duncan, S. 2012. Sadly Missed: The Death Knock News Story as a Personal Narrative of Grief. Journalism. [Online]. 13 (5), pp. 589-603 [Accessed 05/02/2019]. Available from: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1464884911431542

[5] Rentschler, C. 2007. Victims’ Rights and the Struggle over Crime in the Media. Canadian Journal of Communication. [Online]. 32 (2), pp. 219-239. [Accessed 05/02/19]. Available from: http://www.cjc-online.ca/index.php/journal/article/view/1887/3167

[6] Muller, D. 2013. Black Saturday Bushfires and the Question of Consent. Ethical Space. [Online]. 10 (1), pp. 36-42. [Accessed 05/02/19]. Available from: http://communicationethics.net/sub-journals/abstract.php?id=00042

[7] Newton, J. and Brennodden, L. 2015. Victims at the Margins? A Comparative Analysis of the use of Primary Sources in Reporting Personal Tragedy in Norway and the UK. In: Thorsen, E. et al (eds.) Media, Margins and Civic Agency. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.102-115

[8] Independent Press Standards Organisation. 2018. Editor’s Code of Practice. [Online]. [Accessed 05/02/19]. Available from: https://www.ipso.co.uk/editors-code-of-practice/

[9] Ibid

[10] Skehan, J. et al. 2013. Suicide Bereavement and the Media: A Qualitative Study. Advances in Mental Health [Online], 11 (3), pp. 223-237. [Accessed 05/02/19]. Available from: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.5172/jamh.2013.11.3.223

[11] Newton, J. and Duncan, S. 2012. Exploring the Ethics of Death Reporting in the Social Media Age. In Keeble, R. and Mair, J. (Eds). The Phone Hacking Scandal: Journalism on Trial. Bury St Edmunds: Arima Publishing.

[12] Duncan, S. 2012. Sadly Missed: The Death Knock News Story as a Personal Narrative of Grief. Journalism. [Online]. 13 (5), pp. 589-603 [Accessed 05/02/2019]. Available from: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1464884911431542