22 July 2014

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Editor apologises to family over heart death splash

A regional daily editor has apologised to the family of a young heart attack victim over its front-page coverage of the inquest into her death.

Mum-of-two Zoe Bird, from Derby, died of a previously undiagnosed heart condition while on holiday in Majorca last May.

An inquest into the 30-year-old’s death was held last week and reported on the front page of Monday’s Derby Telegraph.

But the report was described by Miss Bird’s partner Daniel Annable as “unfeeling” and editor Neil White has since conceded that the story should not have been used so prominently.

Neil set out his reasons in a first-person piece on page two of Tuesday’s edition of the paper.

He wrote:  “Yesterday, we got it wrong.  Our report of the death of Zoe Bird upset her family and for that I, as editor, am sorry.”

Neil said he had been wrong to sanction the use of an accompanying photograph of Miss Bird which had originally been submitted for a death notice in the paper last May.

And he said that his decision to place the story on the front page had also been wrong.

Said Neil:  “I did think the case was in the public interest because Miss Bird’s death may have sparked others to have tests for potential heart disease and it would have made people realise that a tingling in the arm can be a forewarning of a heart attack.

“However, we should have given greater understanding to Mr Annable’s sensitivities and the article should have been carried less prominently.”

He added: “The decisions surrounding publication of this story were mine. Thus, I am mortified that Mr Annable and Miss Bird’s families and friends should be so distressed by our coverage. My heart goes out to them.”

The Telegraph has pledged to support the family’s efforts to raise funds for heart charities.

18 Comments

  1. Former Journo, Reading

    Not sure if the ‘my heart goes out to them’ in Neil’s quote is appropriate as it could ironically be taken the wrong way. Nevertheless shoddy journalism to use a photo submitted for an obit especially as it seems her family didn’t consent.

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  2. suffolk hack

    Agreed. If you were going to use the story big, you should have asked the family for their consent to use her name and a death notice pic to promote the dangers of hidden heart conditions. If they said ‘no’, it would still have been justifiable to use a short inquest report.

    Speaking generally, I think people are a lot more prepared to complain about things these days.

    And it will get worse if everyone thinks they deserve compo for the slightest error or hurt feelings, thanks to the litigation/compensation element of the new-look PCC recommended by Leveson

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  3. Fresh coriander

    Sorry? Sorry we reported a case in an open court and then used the story where we thought it should be. Sorry we had the temerity to choose a picture the family had wanted published in the paper in the first place. Sorry for doing our job.
    I am sorry that some people, bereaved or otherwise, can hitch a ride on the press bashing bandwaggon and make trouble for hard working newsrooms, particularly as there are people out there who want to ban reporters from inquests just for the cheek of wanting to be there.
    And I am sorry that the editor obviously feels, post Leveson, that enough of his readers will agree with this family, even though they are criticising through ignorance and because they feel somehow this public information is “private”.
    There would have been a series of “outraged” calls, probably orchestrated through facebook or twitter, to the editor’s office from this poor lady’s extended family and a groundswell of support from people who have no idea of the issues.
    Result? Editor fears some kind of backlash and apologises for doing his job. Courage, mes amies!

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  4. Kevin Hughes

    It was a very insensitive use of the story but full marks for the speedy apology.

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  5. twiki

    I’m with Fresh coriander with this one. Having done numerous inquest stories that made the front page, this strikes me as good personal story that would have made a very good front. Obviously, I’ve not read the piece so the tone might have been wrong but apologising for giving the piece undue prominence is just silly

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  6. Errwot

    Using the picture without permission – albeit that permission had been granted for the death notice – is questionable. Other than that it’s difficult to see anything wrong with the report, which I’ve read. Are we saying no inquest should be carried on the front page without the family’s approval? If so, it’s very worrying indeed.

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  7. House Rules

    In today’s local media world inquests are a no go areas sadly.

    We don’t do them as leads any more, and don’t do them at all unless the family consent.

    It is horrible but the PCC seems to uphold all complaints made by people about reporting of inquests so editors are running scared.

    Not blaming the editors as I think the pressure is coming from above about negative press about the papers.

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  8. corporal clegg

    Fresh Coriander is spot-on.
    Young mum dies suddenly on holiday is a good human interest story, regardless of the fatuous ‘warning to others’ idea.
    I’m assuming the paper didn’t report the tragedy at the time, so the inquest was the first time the story had become known.Otherwise it should not have made the front page.
    A sympathetic letter to the family explaining the newspaper’s duty to report an inquest held in public should have sufficed. This opens the bandwagon to all sorts of people and organisations who don’t want their activities reported on the front page – or anywhere else for that matter.

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  9. Suedehead

    How about a different perspective on this?

    When I worked for Britain’s biggest-selling evening paper, there was a strict rule from one very good news editor: never lead the paper on an inquest unless the story is ‘absolutely world sensational’.

    I have often cringed when I’ve seen papers, both local and national, lead with inquests that have been ticked up into ‘tribute’ or ‘worthy’ splashes. An inquest is, more often than not, an old story anyway given the passage of time between the death and the hearing.

    Editors, if an inquest is all you’ve got then you’re just going to have to find another lead. The buck stops with you.

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  10. Bluestringer

    The paper I work for has been supported in a recent inquest complaint ruling by the PCC, we regularly cover coroner’s court and never seek family consent, so I don’t think editors are “running scared”.
    Splashing with an inquest would be a big decision though, and you could only really justify it if there were truly exceptional circumstances or the deceased is well known.

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  11. Mick

    The editor had every right to put this on the front page, so long as it was written factually and in a sensitive way. The use of the picture without permission is questionable, especially if it had previously only accompanied a death notice and not news articles.
    The apology is also pretty weak and I’m sure most people, even non-journalists, will see through his claim that ‘it was to raise public awareness…’ It was the front page because it was the most newsworthy story of the day. And ‘my heart goes out’ is a faux pas.
    But yes, inquests are getting harder and harder to report as people become more willing to complain. Makes editors and reporters question whether it is really worth the time and effort in attending them. Even accurate, 200 word second leads on page 15 seems to draw complaints.

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  12. Neil Speight, Essex

    What we should also be concerned about are the inquests themselves.
    One of my reporters attended three inquests yesterday, two sudden deaths of young men abroad in extraordinary circumstances and one of an old lady who died in a local hospital where there were major concerns about four doctors who had differing versions of the treatment she required. There was considerable ‘miscommunication’ said the Coroner.
    All three cases were of genuine public interest, both in terms of the need for further investigation to a failing of a community service and of the dangers of travelling abroad and insurance issues (one of the young men was injured in a crash and it took a public fundraising appeal for £30,000 to bring him home, where sadly he died of his injuries).
    There was a ‘guillotine of 30 minutes on each one, not that any took that long.
    The courts themselves are sweeping many issues out of the public domain because of ‘sensitivity’ and I believe that much information that used to be in the public domain as a matter of course is being kept out because of the ‘privacy’ fears.
    The job of the courts is to air all the issues in full, the job of journalists is to report them accurately.
    There are issues of sensitivity which all editors come across from time to time and we have to make a decision. That applies to most cases in all courts. I remember a schoolteacher crying and pleading in my office for us not to carry his shoplifting offence because it would ‘ruin’ him (I was sympathetic but I had no option but to run the story, it is not our job to be judgmental in those circumstances).
    I also remember a family coming into my office crying because they had not expected the inquest that delivered an accidental death verdict on their mother in a car crash to be covered. I was able to show them that the report actually vindicated their mother, who might otherwise have been blamed for causing the accident. When they saw the reason for the report they accepted it, indeed thanked me for it.
    Inquests carry more weight of sensitivity than most hearings and I admire Neil’s honesty if he felt he got it wrong, but I suspect the only reason that the family complained is that they are not used to seeing inquests in papers.
    As an industry we reap what we sow. Because of staffing cutbacks and other economic pressures as an industry we cover fewer and fewer cases in courts so what was once the norm now becomes a rarity.
    The lack of coverage and inquisitiveness by journalists has created the problem and I fear, post Leveson, it will get worse.
    If we believe in newspapers and we believe in good journalism we should be prepared to stand our corner more. That isn’t a direct of criticism of Neil’s decision to apologise, I don’t know all the facts, but the need for journalists to stand up and be counted remains as important as ever.
    And this is coming from a newspaper editor who has agreed a ‘media-partnership’ with a local authority to secure an advertising tender, but anyone who reads my papers will see we still cross swords with them. Because we are honest and have drawn lines in the sand which will not be crossed, the integrity of that partnership package is actually stronger.
    We must stand up for our principles more.

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  13. Coetzee

    Agree with most on here – nothing wrong with the story, and nothing wrong with splashing it if it’s interesting enough. Using the photo in that way – absolutely wrong.

    I remember being collared once by a family whose relative had died following a ‘binge drinking’ session where he’d had five times the recommended level and collapsed. They said it implied he was a ‘binge drinker’, which it didn’t. Inquests are almost always upsetting for families because they’re another step in such a tragic process, but that shouldn’t stop the press doing their job.

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  14. redundant hack, lancashire

    As long as the report was accurate, the only issue here surely is whether or not the pic should have been used. Without express instructions from the family, it could easily be assumed they consented to it being used in the paper. A quick phone call would have sufficed.

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  15. Capt. Starlight

    I think any journo with a bit of integrity and gumption should generally agree with what’s been said by Neil Speight.
    Some of the rhurbarb being splashed in many local papers now just illustrates how standards have fallen, partly due to staff cuts and editors under pressure to use anything that fills the paper fast.
    I’m glad I worked for papers in happier times in the 60s, 70s and 80s when we had more staff, less barmy regulation, mature commonsense and higher circulations.
    Also, some coroners fail in their duties to ventilate the blunders leading to some deaths.

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  16. Marty

    One thing which needs to be made clear … most journalists care little for privacy. They will always trot out ‘public interest’ etc.

    The issue is that, bearing in mind what I’ve said above, the treatment of news stories is governed by ‘editorial decisions’ or, in other words, the whims of one man or woman.

    As such, a family which values its privacy can find the last moments on earth of a loved one wiht a huge headline and much of the gorey details on Page 1.

    As in most court cases, the fact is that newspapers – however much they claim – do not treat everyone the same.

    There is toomuch talk about the editor’s ‘right’ to put something on the front page and not enough about responsibilities.

    You see, when all is said and done, the whole excercise IS about selling newspapers. Public interest is just a handy excuse when the papers treat people badly.

    Journalist
    20 years on regionals and nationals
    Not especially proud of my career choice

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  17. Kendo Nagasaki

    Don’t understand the complaint about it being on the front page. If it is wrong on the front, it is wrong on any page, surely? Otherwise we will need guidelines on which pages certain stories are allowed to appear.

    Sadly, I guess the editor’s apology is a consequence of social media and people willing to become offended on behalf of others.

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  18. Blonde_on_Blonde

    What a joke! Apologising for reporting a story?

    Ridiculous

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