Why covering tragedy should never be a matter of routine

When I run training days for reporters and news editors, I put up a list of the sort of stories that consistently do well online and in print.

Top of the content charts – and hogging that number one slot since God was a boy – is tragedy.

There is absolutely no doubt that death and destruction sell papers and boost web audiences.

But there’s also no doubt that the way we cover tragic events is under greater scrutiny than ever before.

And that’s as it should be.

We have a huge and serious responsibility to strike the right tone at a time when real people’s lives are being turned completely upside-down.

In recent weeks, the titles that I work with have had to navigate their way through some difficult moral challenges: finessing the real reasons why Britain’s oldest Poppy Appeal collector ended her life in the Avon Gorge, handling the suicide of a 15-year-old schoolboy found hanging from a tree in a Gloucestershire park, working out the right treatment of some complex inquests, as well as of more routine crash deaths.

I say routine because there is always the danger that that’s how we’ll treat tragedy. To us, these are stories that should be told, reflecting fatalities which happen in very public settings and are then analysed on equally public Facebook pages.

To the people at the heart of these horrors, we can appear to be meddling in private tragedy and grief, coming up with hastily-written pen pictures of folk we have never met, assessing reputations and assembling versions of events while emotions are at their rawest. What they are going through is the polar opposite of routine.

When those competing points of view can be made to overlap, journalism can be an immensely rewarding and heart-warming experience.

When, as so often is the case, they are poles apart, our profession can be an uncomfortable and disquieting place to be.

One of the keys to getting it right is communication.

As I said in a blog last year, keeping families informed is crucial.

But what if you don’t know where they are or how to get hold of them?

There is undoubtedly more that the police could do to prepare bereaved families. This week, one of my news editor colleagues took a call from a friend of a man killed in a road accident. She said the family had been told that the media would not even report the incident if those relatives did not want to comment. Here, more candid and precise information from police liaison staff would have been helpful.

Inquests can throw up major fault lines, with private tensions and problems often laid bare as a death is analysed. I still believe there is little justification for the media to report on a large number of inquests. But I always tried to warn families that we were in touch with that we might be covering their loved one’s hearing.

A lot of inquests, though, involve people with whom we have had no previous contact. As we have a perfect right to attend and report on such hearings, perhaps it would be kind for coroners’ officers to tell families this in advance.

That same news editor was telling me yesterday of a family who clearly thought that declining to comment at the end of an inquest meant that the evidence heard would not be reported.

The regulator IPSO too needs to consider its role.

I wouldn’t want to see any part of the editors’ code dealing with intrusion into grief watered down.

But it is more challenging than ever for the conventional media to toe the line on naming victims.

The code was drawn up in pre-Facebook days, when the jungle telegraph operated at a much slower and less public pace.

And here’s the double whammy rub.

Those same people who rush to post RIP Tom, Dick or Harry may be equally quick to shout intrusion when their comments are held up to the media mirror.

But if we want our reporting to be the trusted, authoritative, objective version of events,  we have to accept the higher level of scrutiny and expectation that comes with this.

The way we cover tragedies gives a clear message to our communities about our values, our brands and our priorities.

It is simply the most important journalism we do.


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