‘We’d like to do a tribute’ : How to report on bereavement

One of the hardest parts of a journalist’s job is negotiating the moral minefield of reporting on tragedy.

But getting it right – and getting feedback from a bereaved family confirming that you have – can also be one of the best.

We have one chance to get it right, one chance to sum up the complicated, rich, beautiful life of someone we have never known.

And for the person’s family, this may be their one and only contact with the media – one that will stay with them, and be discussed with friends, workmates and neighbours, for a lifetime.

There can be no more important journalism than this. The eyes of a community are on us, and rightly so.

So how, in a digital age where the young victims of car crashes are identified on Facebook within hours, do we get it right?

For the moment, the best starting point must be the Press Complaints Commission’s code of conduct:


It has to be said that this is low on detail: “In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively.”


The PCC is clear that it has no problem with approaches being made, and that coverage of accidental deaths is very much safe and legitimate territory for the media.

The Western Gazette in Yeovil has developed a neat and effective way of encouraging families to talk.

The device relies on you having a detailed address for the family, with the letter, on headed notepaper, hand-delivered:

To the family of xxxxx,

I am so sorry to bother you at this difficult time and that is why I have decided to drop a note through the door, rather than make a direct approach.

I am a reporter for The Western Gazette and in this/next week’s paper we will be carrying a report of the tragic death of Mr xxx.

Normally in these circumstances we ask the family whether they would like to pay a tribute.

I realise that this approach is being made quite soon after this terrible incident but I wanted to let you know about our report so you would not be surprised, and to give you the opportunity to pay tribute to Mr xx, if you should so wish.

I also need to let you know that our deadline is 5pm xxxx.

If you do wish to pay tribute, please call me directly on xxxx. I would be happy to visit you in person, or you can speak to me by telephone if you prefer.

Please again accept our apologies for having to contact you at this difficult time.

Yours sincerely,

A Reporter

It is almost certain now that our first inkling of the identity of someone killed in an accident will come from Facebook, possibly helped by the search terms emerging through Omniture.

Facebook can be invaluable in beginning to fill in the background to someone’s life.

But it’s no substitute for real contact.

It’s easy to kid yourself that you’re saving a family’s feelings by avoiding a direct approach and relying on social media.

But, aside from the unreliability of much of the information found on the profiles of 20somethings, you’d almost certainly be wrong.

Research carried out two years ago concluded that many families would prefer the face-to-face contact that only a Western Gazette-style letter, door-knock, phone call or email can engender.

And – crucially – the message, time and time again, is that any sort of inaccuracy can turn the knife during a period when emotions are at their rawest.



Getting it right, then, means getting it right.

So here’s the first tip: Check your facts

Check, check and check again, until there can be no room for misunderstanding or mistake about the simplest and most innocuous biographical detail.

Here’s some more:

* Don’t do faux empathy: Unless you really have been in their position, don’t pretend you have. But feel free to express honest human emotions. 

* Allow people time to talk: Let them go off on tangents, and let the conversation flow naturally. That way you will get the very best quotes which paint the very best picture of the dead person. Respond to what the family are saying, rather than racing through a checklist.

* Make sure there are no surprises: Ensure the family know what you’re quoting them as saying. This is one of the rare occasions where in my view we can overcome our busy and lofty principles, and let someone see what we’re saying about them. It will save an awful lot of of angst in the long run. If it’s likely to be on the front, tell them. If it’s about to go online, tell them. And if it’s held for a day, tell them.

* Be careful about social media: People don’t choose their Facebook privacy settings on the premise that they’re going to be killed in a horror car crash. My personal view is that taking certain pictures off Facebook is like pinching photos off the living room mantelpiece. And then there’s copyright. 

* Avoid gratuitous detail: We don’t need to know someone was beheaded by the force of a lorry’s impact. Inquests are a particular minefield here. And be very careful about suicide reporting – that’s probably a blog for another time.

* Make sure enough family members know: One thing the PCC is very clear on is that, in our stories, we should not be breaking the news of a death to close family members. This is where off-the-record guidance from the police – remember those heady pre-Leveson days? – comes into its own.

* Remember the person is a person, not just a victim: Before they had this accident, they were a fully-formed, interesting, rounded human being. That’s what their family want to remember, not the grim details of the way they died.

There are more useful web posts here:



While this is one from the point of view of families who may have been at the wrong end of a journalist’s pen.


At the end of the day, though, it comes down to one simple question.

No matter how much pressure there might be to get something online, no matter how much a freelance or national journalist may play fast and loose with the truth.

If it was a member of my family who was being written about, would I be happy with the way it had all been dealt with?



Making social media more sociable

I follow more than 1,800 people on Twitter.
I say people, but some of them are organisations, news websites – not to mention the official feed of Plymouth Argyle.
But it’s the people that I go to Twitter for, and who provide the glorious mixture of madness, insight and irreverence that makes it such a daily delight.
And so it’s always nice to see journalists tweeting in their own right about the stories they’re working on.
When I was a news editor all those days ago, I enjoyed keeping up the occasional running commentary on issues we were covering – and stories we were chasing.
Amid the welter of rumour, half-truth and gossip, people still turn to what might be described as the traditional (Are we traditional any more? Let’s hope not so much, these days) media for the definitive version of events.
One of the country’s most experienced and engaging editors, the Oxford Mail’s Simon O’Neill was in action earlier today:

One of our Local World editors, Tamworth Herald boss Gary Phelps, provides a kind of running daily news conference via Twitter, talking about the stories coming into his newsroom, and highlighting the odd cracking picture.

He’s also guilty of the odd ‘joke’, sadly.

At another Local World title, Nottingham Post editor Mike Sassi also showcases his staff’s best stuff.

As I get into my stride in my new job, it’s gratifying to see how many journalists have their own Twitter accounts.
But it would be lovely to see more journalists breaking out of their perceived shackles to offer emotional and factual insights into their work, and to offer a glimpse of the processes, priorities and problems that make up the modern, multimedia, ethical newsroom.
Of course, the real work in bringing people to our websites will always largely be done by our branded Twitter and Facebook accounts.
But time spent showing that there are real human beings behind them is never time wasted.

Dropping in

It’s a great way of breathing new life into a story.

And it’s particularly good when you’re writing about an individual.

You build up the story gently but enticingly, reeling the reader in.

There. I’ve written a dropped intro about the dropped intro.

This is the sort of approach that helps vary the pace of papers, pages and websites, forcing a break from formulaic, predictable writing that does none of us any favours.

Let me just illustrate the technique with a simple 70th wedding anniversary example.

A straightforward – and very dull – intro would go something like this:

A couple who met at a wartime dance have celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary.

But a dropped intro would inject a bit more life, like this.

Their eyes met as Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade played in the background.

Off-duty airman Fred Bloggs seized his chance and asked shop assistant Norma Smith to dance.

Within a year, the couple were married – and they are now celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary.

It’s amazing how forcing yourself to find an alternative approach can lift your own interest and investment in a story.

So do me a favour.

Try to write at least one dropped intro this week.

Don’t force it into a page one lead about a multiple  stabbing, obviously.

And keep the first few sentences crisp and fast-flowing.

One final thought on the subject of those big wedding anniversaries.

Has anyone done one recently where 1) the couple haven’t put their long and happy marriage down to give and take, and 2) the jobs done by both husband and wife still actually exist?

How to write right

Over the last two decades, I’ve enjoyed doing hundreds of copy clinics with reporters

Each has been different, reflecting the splendid diversity of the people I’ve worked with.

But there have also been many common themes, cropping up time and time again.

Here then are my top ten copy copy clinic regulars:

1. Keep it simple Keep re-reading your copy to ensure you’ve found the simplest way of saying something, and that your copy flows logically and smoothly. Use the simplest words possible – but not however, buy not purchase.

2. Keep it short Look out for repetition, and cut your quotes to the very best material.

3. Quotes These are for opinion and emotion, not for facts, dates etc. Ensure quotes don’t introduce new names, ideas, background that aren’t already explained earlier in the story.

4. Write for readers, not politicians Keep asking yourself: does anyone care, or perhaps should anyone care? This is particularly relevant when covering council meetings. You’re not the clerk, and no one wants to hear about councillors’ motions.

5. Cut and paste care There’s no shame in cutting and pasting, but take care. I see too many stories with ‘please contact’ and ‘our’ when we should be offering objective analysis.

6. Too much detail Don’t bombard the reader with too many intimidating upper and lower case proper nouns too high up in a story. Sprinkle the detail throughout the story, releasing key information such as ages, addresses, employment details etc in different paragraphs.

7. Paint a picture If you’re writing about a person who’s at the heart of a story, get their age, address and job details.

8.  Acronyms Only put these in brackets if you’re going to use them a lot in a story, and if they’re not obvious. Don’t repeat the full names of schools, organisations etc in subsequent mentions.

9. Singular and plural Councils, companies, charities, schools, government departments, pressure groups etc etc are all singular. And they take the word which, not who.

10. Avoid cliches like the plague Award ceremonies don’t have to be glittering or prestigious, gardeners don’t have to be greenfingered and award-winning hair stylists aren’t all a cut above the rest. And please be sparing over the use of words such as special and iconic.

So there you go.

One final thought: get into the habit of looking at your copy with new eyes once you’ve finished it. If you have to get up, do a twirl and sit down again, so be it.