IPSO Blog: Reporting on a death with sympathy and sensitivity

Speaking to journalists, one of the hardest things they have to do is to reach out to the recently bereaved.

These approaches give those who have lost loved ones the opportunity to speak about and pay public tribute or, in some cases, an opportunity to voice their concerns about the circumstances of a death. Some bereaved people will wish to speak to journalists, but many others may want to grieve in private.

There was a lot of discussion earlier this year about whether and how journalists should approach the recently bereaved, particularly following the terror attacks in Manchester and London as well as the Grenfell Fire. There seemed to be two prevailing opinions – either that journalists should never approach the bereaved because they are grieving, or that journalists should be allowed to do so because reporting on a death is in the public interest.

The death of an individual is a matter of public record and their death may affect a community as well as those who knew the individual personally. Journalists have a basic right to report the fact of a person’s death, even if surviving family members would prefer for there to be no reporting and regard the death as private.

While deaths are public matters, they are also extremely sensitive. The Editors’ Code of Practice makes clear that in cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively.

A discussion at a recent meeting of our Journalists’ Advisory Panel highlighted that journalists wanted advice on these points – how to report with sensitivity and how to make approaches to family members with sympathy.

These are difficult issues, as judging matters of sensitivity and sympathy are subjective. However, there are actions that journalists can take to report sensitively and with sympathy.

To help journalists with these difficult questions, we have produced guidance on how to report deaths and inquests. This guidance reflects the wider discussion about how journalists approach these issues, as well as the feedback from our advisory panel. Although aimed at journalists, the guidance may also be helpful to members of the public in explaining the editorial decision-making behind these sensitive stories.

If you have any comments on the guidance, or suggestions of topics we could look at in the future, please get in touch by emailing charlotte.urwin@ipso.co.uk