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.
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?