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Law Column: Reporting on fatalities – new guidance from IPSO

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A recent IPSO blog post addressed conclusions from research in the PLOS One journal, which investigated suicide rates in the US following the highly publicised suicide of actor and comedian Robin Williams.

The key conclusion from the research was that, in the immediate months following on from Williams’ death, there was a higher than expected number of suicide cases. Whilst not causally linked, the researchers said the events appeared to be connected. In addition, the research addressed the way in which the actor’s death was reported, noting that US media outlets did not follow guidelines from the World Health Organisation concerning celebrity suicide and the prevention of simulative acts.

In the UK, the reporting of suicide has changed significantly over time – most recently with changes introduced in 2016 to clause 5 of the Editors Code, which make specific reference to the importance of taking care to “avoid excessive detail of the method used” in order to “prevent simulative acts”.

For journalists, therefore, it is important to address (and defend, if necessary) their justification as to why detail is included regarding the way in which an individual died. This is particularly relevant when reporting upon a novel method, so as to minimise the risk of simulative acts. Recent IPSO decisions concerning clause 5 illustrate this tension, with complaints upheld on the grounds that articles irresponsibly provided excessive detail about the circumstances surrounding a particular suicide.

The way in which the media addresses the topic of suicide operates within the wider context of the role and responsibilities of the media in reporting on death, which has been highlighted in the wake of the Manchester Arena attack.

As events in Manchester unfolded, they created a storm of information and speculation on social media, presenting difficulties for journalists seeking to report accurately upon the fatal attack. The IPSO complaint of Pauline Gorman against the Daily Star illustrated this issue. The Star published an image of Ms Gorman’s 16 year old daughter in a montage of people missing. It later emerged that she was not involved in the attack and the image had been published as part of a social media hoax.

In its ruling, IPSO acknowledged the important role of newspapers in documenting the impact of terrorism. However, in doing so, it said the press must report accurately and sympathetically on rapidly evolving events, whilst also understanding the feelings of those affected.

Social media presents a wealth of information and the opportunity to illustrate a story, through comment and visuals. However, in doing so, it also presents challenges as to how, if, and when that information is to be used, given that it may be unverified or simply wrong.

Even in today’s online world, the role of a journalist at the scene is not diminished. However, there is a clear need for journalists to respect the privacy of the bereaved, whilst providing an outlet for others to discuss their feelings.

Taken together, reporting on fatalities requires sympathy and sensitivity. It also requires an understanding that the story could have an effect on vulnerable people or those connected to the subject. This being said, the press has a clear role in communicating the visceral impact of events and creating a dialogue around the issues they raise.

FOOTNOTE: IPSO is collaborating this year with the Samaritans, who have published valuable guidance on their website (https://www.samaritans.org/media-centre/media-guidelines-reporting-suicide) aimed at those reporting suicide in any media.

5 comments

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  • April 10, 2018 at 12:03 pm
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    In online reports, in cases of road crashes, murders, sudden deaths and suicides, I’ve noticed that some papers immediately describe the breaking news as “ sad” or “very sad”. It is often used when reporting train track deaths (“Sad News from Croydon Station Today”).
    This is something papers rarely or ever do in print. In fact, reporters have always been taught to keep their opinions out of it, quite rightly in my view.
    I understand why they do it. It is an attempt to dispel the widely- held public belief that reporters are cruelly insensitive and heartless to the misery of those affected by these tragedies. This view is underlined by the outrageous behaviour of some reporters (almost exclusively national tabloids) on stories like the Manchester bombing, where some will lie, cheat and bully to get a line.
    We are not, of course, a heartless bunch but a certain steely resolve and professionalism must be employed when reporting on tragedy, whether it is one person or many.
    Anyway, to me the use of “sad” or “ very sad” when reporting death comes over as insincere – a throwaway line which devalues the serious nature of the job and panders to the “another star in heaven” element in the readership. But then I always was a hard-nosed old git. What do others think?

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  • April 10, 2018 at 4:25 pm
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    On social media (Facebook) the idea is to try and talk with readers like they talk with each other. That is the reason, I believe, why you get these references to “sad” etc.

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  • April 10, 2018 at 4:39 pm
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    Yep, it’s part of today’s knee-jerk, snowflake throwaway society.
    You only have to look at the comments on any regional news social meejah link reporting any death and you’re inundated with a vomit-load of ‘So sad RIP’ and ‘teary faced emojis’ from oxygen thieves who just feel the need to comment whether they knew the deceased or not. Death happens. Live with it, ‘cos it’s the only thing in life that’s certain.

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  • April 10, 2018 at 5:04 pm
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    “Sadly, the man died following (AFTER actually) the crash ” and such-like is staple stuff for regional television and even local papers and even cops press releases. It is perhaps well meant but patronising.
    I like to think the general public might safely assume the death of someone was sad.
    And if I see “untimely death” again…
    Death always brings heartache and is never timely. Leave out this daft expression.
    Strange too that in the 21st century papers often cannot bear to use the word “died”. Perhaps they think “passed away” is more PC?
    Let’s be kind, certainly. But do not patronise people about the death of someone you do not know.

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  • April 10, 2018 at 9:42 pm
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    Paperboy: I agree. All too euphemisms are employed about death. Let’s stop using euphemisms and say what happened. Sad when someone has died but let’s say it and stop being nampy pamby about it.

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