As journalists we have been asked if we “like” to write about death. This question is often asked by the parent of someone who has been the subject of an investigation. They are often distressed, angry and deeply hurt.
They usually have the feeling that we have delved into a secret part of their life and that no one else has the right to know.
And we understand it perfectly. The answer is never “yes, I like to write about death”. The answer is none of us like to do it, but there’s a really good reason why we do it.
The following quote is from the Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO) guidelines on investigations. This is the organization put in place to offer advice on how we should operate as reporters.
“The fact of someone’s death is not private. The deaths affect communities as well as individuals and are a legitimate subject of reporting.”
It sounds cold enough – “the fact of someone’s death is not private” – but it strikes at the very heart of why we write about it.
Who can attend an investigation and why are they being held?
This is what you need to know. The general public has the right to attend all investigative hearings except in exceptional circumstances, and investigations must be held in buildings “accessible to the public without physical barriers so that any member of the public can enter.”
All hearings are therefore open to journalists, and “a fair and precise account of the proceedings is encouraged”.
Investigations are organized when the cause of death may be violent or unnatural, or a person has died in prison, custody or other type of state detention
It is a public investigative process to establish who died and where, when and how the death occurred. It will not establish who is responsible for the death and most investigations are completed within six months of the death.
Why report them?
First of all, it bears repeating that reporting on investigations is one of the most difficult things for journalists to do and we recognize that a number of people think we shouldn’t do it.
But there are three very important reasons why we do this.
When reporting investigations, we often draw attention to circumstances that can lead to further death or injury if no preventive action is taken.
By highlighting the facts that led to one tragedy, there is hope that someone reading the story may be able to prevent another tragedy from happening in the future; recognize the first signs of a spiral that could lead to a person committing suicide, realize how little alcohol it takes to cause a fatal accident, or meet a health and safety need to prevent an accident in the workplace, etc.
Second, as noted in the IPSO press guide, there is a public interest in investigative reports, which are public events anyway. By reporting on an investigation, a journalist can dispel any rumors or suspicions about the death.
And third, the principle of open justice applies in coroner’s courts and it is our duty to ensure that hearings are made public.
Our reports, therefore, are often an impersonal look at the facts of the case and we understand that this can be distressing for families.
Whenever possible, we will contact loved ones present at the hearing and it is the coroner’s office to inform loved ones that the media may be present and report the findings.
Often, families are unwilling to talk to us and we will absolutely respect that. When they do, it allows us to write a more personal narrative in our stories.
But we are unable to accommodate the requests we receive not to post a story at all for the reasons stated above, however harsh it may sound.
We will not do sensationalism. We will not be free. We will accurately report the evidence provided at the hearing and the findings to educate, dispel any doubt and uphold the principle of open justice.
We understand that this will not satisfy everyone. We understand that people will continue to think that we are intruding into their personal grief and that was never our intention.
We don’t like to report on tragedies that are often very personal, but it is important that we continue to publish these stories and I sincerely hope that this will reduce the risk of similar tragedies occurring in the future.
What can you do?
It is beneficial for people to know that we are witnessing almost every investigation in Plymouth and when we do, a story will emerge.
We understand that coroners in Plymouth regularly inform people that this is the case and that members of the press may be present.
When asking families for comments during an investigation, our reporters should do so with due regard to the fact that investigations can be extremely distressing for the bereaved. They must stop questioning, prosecuting or photographing members of the public at the request of that person or their representative.
We should never speculate and stick to the facts of the case as presented at the hearing.
IPSO makes it clear that journalists should be especially careful when reporting on suicide, to ensure that they do not provide excessive detail about the method used, which could lead someone to try. to copy the method.
If you have any concerns about the accuracy of an investigation report, want to add a personal tribute, or request changes, you can directly contact the reporter who posted the story on Plymouth Live by clicking their signature, sending an email to [email protected] or by calling 01752 293122.
If you want to go further, the IPSO Hotline is open 9am to 5.30pm on 0300 123 22 20 or you can send an email to [email protected]