Speaking ill of the dead: is it ever justified?

It’s a tricky journalistic moral dilemma at the best of times.

But it comes into its own at this time of the year.

Just when is it appropriate to speak ill of the dead?

In Bath, where I am going back to my roots as a reporter this week, the killing of a homeless man has been top of the news agenda.

It’s important that we treat him as a fully-rounded human being, and I’ll be aiming to talk to a homelessness worker who knew him reasonably well tomorrow so he becomes more of a person and less of a one-dimensional victim.

We’ve got some reasonably warm – and sobering – words from another charity which worked with him.

But it’s also crystal clear that our man was no angel.

A paper in his home city put the fact that he was jailed during the 2011 riots for stealing some Krispy Kreme doughnuts in both the headline and intro of their story about his death.

We’ve deliberately put our mention of his 100-plus convictions right at the bottom of our latest story.

But we’ve still been taken to task on Twitter for “souring” his reputation.

It’s a classic case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

I well remember being accused of sanitising the reputation of a driver who died along with his cousin in a crash while he was over the limit because we enabled family members to pay glowing tribute to him.

In the end, we should always strive for a balance between what can be the harsh truth and the feelings of the bereaved.

If our coverage is fair, balanced and tinged with humanity, an element of warts-and-all can be part of painting the fullest possible picture of a real human being.

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One thought on “Speaking ill of the dead: is it ever justified?

  1. Everyone is a hero once they are dead, it seems. If someone was a philandering conman, this doesn’t change because they have passed into another realm, so why sugar coat it. Some people are wrong-uns. We would all like to think that someone would weep at our grave if we expired. Sadly, this is not the case.

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