IPSO Blog: Reporting breaking news

Joint Head of Complaints Lauren Sloan advises on the rules journalists must follow in breaking news situations such as the reporting of Coronavirus.

While the Coronavirus pandemic itself is novel and new, the reporting of breaking news is not.

Journalists often have to report on fast moving, evolving stories which are of significant public interest. This kind of reporting brings with it a particular set of challenges but the requirements of the Editors Code – for accuracy, privacy, and the conduct of journalists when approaching people – remain the same. 

When reporting breaking news on any topic, including Coronavirus, accuracy is essential. Fast-developing news stories will, by their nature, involve the reporting of detail which, while believed to be accurate at the time of publication, is clarified or refuted as events become clearer. Journalists may also be presented with conflicting and incomplete information, particularly on social media, so it’s really important that care is taken to verify and cross check material. If a significant inaccuracy is published, the Code requires that this should be corrected promptly and prominently so the correct position is on the public record.

In rapidly changing circumstances like the current pandemic, it can be difficult for journalists to know what sources are reliable. Information often emerges from a variety of places at different times. While of course, journalists will want to look at material from “official” channels like the Police and the Government, they’ll also be interested in immediate, first-hand accounts. Care must always be taken to distinguish between comment conjecture and fact, and to present claims as such.

In order to make sure what they are reporting is accurate, journalists may want to approach people to find out more about their experiences. Clause 4 of the Code says that any approaches in circumstances of grief or shock must be made with sensitivity. It is of course up to specific individuals whether or not they want to talk to the press, but if they are asked not to contact people, journalists should desist from making approaches. (find out more about how IPSO can help people concerned about press intrusion here).

In a breaking news situation, photography can also be really important to give readers a real sense of what is going on but care must be taken around privacy. Journalists and editors do not generally need consent to use photographs taken in a public places which do not show private activity or reveal anything private about someone. However, someone may have a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to a medical emergency, receiving medical care, or perhaps times of personal grief or shock, even if they are in a public place, so journalists should be alert to this, especially in a rapidly developing scenario.

Despite the challenges around breaking news, it is important that reporting is accurate and otherwise Code compliant. Trust and accountability are vital and journalists play a crucial role in providing essential information to the public and explaining and questioning what is going on in the current circumstances.

Find out more about how IPSO can help the public and organisations with Coronavirus reporting concerns here. We also offer 24-hour non-binding pre-publication advice for journalists, as well as guidance on how the Editors' Code may apply here.