Complaints Officer Alice Gould explains why journalists make approaches after a death, what the rules are, and how IPSO can help.
The death of a loved one is an incredibly difficult time. During and after a bereavement there are many matters to consider. One thing that some people in this circumstance may not be aware of, or expect to happen, is to be contacted by the press.
While of course a death most closely affects immediate family and friends, it can also have an impact on the wider community. The fact of a death is not private information and journalists are allowed to report on it, but they must do so in line the Editors’ Code of Practice, the set of rules that all publishers regulated by IPSO must follow.
Why report on a death?
Some of the reasons a newspaper or magazine may choose to report on a death include if someone has died in unusual circumstances or unexpectedly, or if the death has particularly affected a community. They may publish information about someone’s death as an obituary in their obituary section, or as a news story. How this is reported will depend on the circumstances and profile of the person who has died. They may also report on inquests, as part of the principle of open justice, to make sure that the public understands the reasons why a death has occurred, draw attention to circumstances which may lead to more deaths, or clear up any rumours or suspicion about a death.
Many considerations are made before a journalist chooses to reach out to the relatives or loved ones of the recently deceased, and it is of course a personal and individual decision about whether or not somebody wishes to speak to the press. Some of those contacted may not wish to speak to the press about their loss, while others will wish to speak about the life of the deceased to raise awareness, find closure or honour their memory. Speaking to the deceased’s relatives and friends gives journalists an opportunity to make sure they are reporting accurately.
What are the rules?
As always, journalists must comply with the rules of the Editors’ Code of Practice. This makes clear that:
• any approach must be made with sympathy and discretion
• they do not publish information that might cause any unnecessary upset to friends and family of the person who has died
• they do not break the news of a death to the immediate family
• reports about a death are accurate
• they do not harass people
• in cases where someone has died by suicide, they do not publish too much information about how they died.
How can IPSO help?
Whilst many people do choose to talk to the press, IPSO offers assistance to people who do not want to. We have a 24-hour emergency helpline for those concerned about press intrusion and can circulate privacy notices, which enable us to make the industry, or individual titles, aware of a concern that the Code has been or may be breached, or to communicate a specific request to the industry, such as to stop telephoning an individual.
For more information about the reporting of deaths, see IPSO’s guidance here.