Revised guidance on reporting of deaths and inquests is aimed at helping journalists and editors to report sensitively, as IPSO’s Standards Officer, Rosemary Douce explains.
Originally written in the wake of the bombing of Manchester Arena and terror-related stabbings at London Bridge in 2017, IPSO’s guidance on reporting of deaths and inquests advises journalists on points to consider when reporting and how to make approaches to family members sensitively.
The updated guidance links more closely to the Editors’ Code of Practice - the guiding framework that IPSO uses to assess complaints. It includes summaries of recent complaints and explains how the Complaints Committee reached their decisions.
This guidance reflects the wider discussion about how journalists approach these issues. In writing this, we consulted our Journalists’ Advisory Panel who provided helpful feedback on applying the Editors’ Code of Practice. The guidance helps to explain the challenges and considerations editors face when reporting on sensitive stories.
It describes how the Code applies to reporting of inquests, funerals, breaking news stories, and contacting people for comment in the aftermath of a death.
Why do journalists report on people’s deaths?
News organisations play an important role in reporting deaths and accidents. Even when done sensitively, this often causes great distress to the families of those involved. Journalists have a right to report that someone has died, even if family members would prefer no reporting and see the death as private.
The Editors’ Code does not prohibit reporting on distressing circumstances and events but Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) does say that reporting should be sensitively handled. And we know from investigating complaints about reports on deaths and inquests made under Clause 1 (Accuracy) that inaccurate reporting can be particularly distressing for people at a time of grief.
IPSO receives requests from journalists for pre-publication advice relating to funerals and other ceremonies following a death. Some families accept, or even welcome, press coverage. For others, funerals are intensely private events and they find any attendance at the service or location by journalists or coverage to be intrusive and distressing.
Families will sometimes ask IPSO to issue a private advisory notice to cover a funeral, to communicate their request that the funeral is a private event and that journalists should not seek to attend.
Inquests (and in Scotland, Fatal Accident Inquiries) are public events, and the media are entitled to report on proceedings in an open and transparent way. The Code makes clear that the requirement to handle publication sensitively should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings under the principle of open justice.
Breaking news stories
When first reporting a person’s death, journalists are often breaking the news. Immediate family members should not expect to hear about a loved one’s death from a journalist. Reporters and editors should take care that close family members are aware before publishing the name of a person who has died, or approaching relatives for comment.
Social media can be a source of information about deaths or incidents, as well as providing a means to contact family members.
Information on social media may not be accurate. News of major incidents has been followed by the creation of fake social media or fundraising accounts, pretending to identify people caught up in the incident. Journalists should take care before using information taken from social media, and should verify the source before publishing.
Enquiries made to bereaved families through social media must be made with sympathy and discretion (this is set out in Clause 4 of the Editors’ Code).
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