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Journalists not obliged to contact bereaved families, watchdog says

Christine FosterJournalists are under no obligation to contact next of kin before reporting on people’s deaths, the press watchdog has confirmed.

The Independent Press Standards Organisation has made the point after rejecting a bereaved brother’s complaint against the Wigan Observer.

Keith Foster went to IPSO after the Observer covered the death of his sister Christine, pictured, claiming the newspaper had not acted with sympathy and discretion because it had not contacted her family or forewarned them about the content of its story.

But IPSO found in the Observer’s favour, ruling there is no requirement for publications to contact the relatives of deceased individuals prior to writing stories about deaths in the community.

The Observer had run a story about Ms Foster’s death after it had already been reported by several publications, including at least one national title, including comments from one of her colleagues.

Complaining under Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment), and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice, Mr Foster said the story had been published prior to the formal identification of his sister’s body and alleged a number of inaccuracies.

He said he had phoned a journalist working for the Observer, who told him he had not reached out to his family because he did not have any contact details for them.

According to Mr Foster, the reporter attributed this to the volume of work he had.

Mr Foster’s concerns were then escalated first to an editor, and then to a more senior member of staff, who both apologised for the distress caused and said that should he wish to work with the Observer on a tribute to his sister they would be “more than happy to publish that as well”.

The senior member of staff also undertook an internal investigation into how the story came to be written – although this was not completed prior to him contacting IPSO.

Denying a breach of Code, the Observer said it had published the story following the release of two police statements and coverage elsewhere – meaning it could not be the case that it had broken the news of Ms Foster’s death.

A public appeal had previously been issued for help in locating the woman after she had gone missing, and the Observer believed there was a public interest in reporting on the police’s updated statement regarding what had happened to her.

The paper noted that there is no obligation for publications to contact the relatives of deceased individuals prior to publishing stories and said that it was often the case that it did not consider it necessary to intrude upon the grief of a family at a difficult time.

In a case where one of its journalists had spoken extensively with a colleague of the woman who had known her for many years, the Observer did not consider it necessary or proportionate to contact her family prior to publication.

IPSO confirmed the terms of Clause 4 include no requirement for reporters to contact the relatives of deceased individuals,

It found the Observer had responded post-publication with sympathy and discretion, apologised for any distress caused and escalated Mr Fosters’s concerns in line with his wishes.

The complaint was not upheld, and the full adjudication can be read here.