The Society of Editors has called on newsrooms to revisit their policies on approaching relatives and friends of those caught up in tragic incidents such as the Manchester Arena bombing where 22 people died last year.
The comments follow today’s interim report from Lord Kerslake who was asked by Mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham to look into how public bodies had reacted to the bombing of the Manchester Arena during a pop concert by Ariane Grande in May of 2017.
The progress report said more than 400 documents had been submitted and the panel was now also looking into the role of both mainstream and social media. There had been reports, it was said, where the families of victims and those associated with them had been contacted by reporters, including through social media, for comment before official confirmation of a death.
Lord Kerslake said: “We really wanted in this review to tell the story from the point of view of the bereaved and the injured and clearly a lot of the media handled things respectfully, but there were some occasions where they really didn’t.
“We want to look at what can we learn from this, it’s all about the way in which people behave, the respect with which they treat those caught up in these terrible events.”
Reacting to the interim report, Executive Director of the Society of Editors Ian Murray said that while it was difficult to comment on individual instances at this time, all media organisations should be aware of guidelines and requirements for dealing with the families of victims during and after a serious incident.
“I’m very pleased to note that Lord Kerslake acknowledged that the majority of the media acted in a respectful and responsible manner during and after the terrible attack in Manchester. But there are obvious concerns if some relatives and friends of those thought to be missing, injured or tragically killed were subjected to what they considered to be unacceptable pressure” said Murray.
“There are strong guidelines issued by such bodies as the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) designed to avoid such issues, which together with requirements through the Editors’ Code of Practice and Ofcom to ensure intrusion into grief is handled sensitively, should be adhered to. If this was not the case in some incidents following the Manchester attack, then I would urge newsrooms in all media to revisit those guidelines as a priority.”
Murray added that it should be understood that the use of social media by journalists, especially when reacting to appeals put out by family and friends seeking information, was an acceptable journalistic practice for publishers and broadcasters. Families may, and often do, welcome offers from the media to broaden their appeals for assistance to a wider audience or to later pay tribute to loved ones. However, this did not mean the media should not continue to require to act with appropriate sensitivity at all times.
“As society makes increasing use of social media, then this issue of how not just the media but also everyone using these platforms reacts and acts during such terrible incidents will become an ever-more urgent topic for debate. The Society of Editors stands ready to play its part in helping to facilitate such discussions,” added Murray.
The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) issues the following guidelines for journalists when reporting breaking news of a major incident where death and or injury may be a factor: (https://www.ipso.co.uk/press-standards/guidance-for-journalists-and-editors/deaths-and-inquests-guidance/#ReportingBreakingNews).
Immediate family members should not expect to be made aware of the death of a family member by a journalist. That means taking care that the immediate family is aware before publishing the name of a person who has died in an incident, or approaching them for comment (see Lincolnshire Police v. Lincolnshire Echo).
Journalists should also carefully consider whether they should publish any information about the death in the immediate aftermath that may inadvertently identify the deceased and thereby break the news of the death. For example, photos of the scene of a road traffic accident might lead to a family identifying a victim if it includes a vehicle’s number plate or other distinctive characteristics.
1. Have you checked whether the immediate family is aware of the person’s death?
2. Are you publishing any information which could lead to the identification of the person who has died?
3. How reliable is the information you are using to identify the individual who has died? What steps have you taken to verify the information?
Particular care should be taken in relation to the publication of information taken from social media which reports on a person’s involvement in a life-threatening incident. News of major incidents has been followed by the creation of hoax social media or fundraising accounts, pretending to identify individuals caught up in the incident. Journalists should be wary of sources on social media carrying this information and verify the source of information before publishing (see Gorman v Daily Star).
Cause of death
Journalists should exercise caution when speculating on the cause of an individual’s death. Speculating on these matters could be insensitive, particularly in cases where allegations are made about the deceased or the manner of their death which are proved to be unsubstantiated.
Reporting of suicide
The Code makes clear that journalists should take particular care when reporting on suicide, to ensure that they do not provide excessive detail of the method used, which might result in simulative acts. Sometimes there may be specific justification for including detail about the method, for example because it is central to the proceedings at an inquest; in those instances this detail may not be “excessive”. However, journalists should still take great care in selecting what
details to include in a story and should be prepared to explain the decision about what was included.
Journalists should take particular care when reporting on a novel method of suicide, to prevent the likelihood of attention being drawn to a new method of suicide and the risk therefore of others using this method.
1. What level of detail are you going to include in the report of the death?
2. Is the method you are reporting on novel? If so, what steps will you take to ensure that you don’t provide excessive detail?