Death In The News: What Can Be Reported?

Freeman Brothers was first established as a funeral director in 1855. The company began in Horsham, West Sussex, and now has a further three offices across the county – in Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint. Due to a significant range of experience working in local communities, colleagues of the organisation know that death impacts people in […]

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Freeman Brothers was first established as a funeral director in 1855. The company began in Horsham, West Sussex, and now has a further three offices across the county – in Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint. Due to a significant range of experience working in local communities, colleagues of the organisation know that death impacts people in a range of ways. This can mean that deaths are reported by the media, and Becky looks at how this in turn affects people.

During the last few years, there’s been more media reporting of death than ever before, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, reporting of death has always been done, and there are actually rules about it. Some people have an emotional response to the coverage of death in the media, and I wanted to highlight why it’s important and what news outlets have to do in order to cover the topic correctly.

The organisation responsible for regulating many of the UK’s newspapers and magazines is the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). They help to uphold standards of journalism, protect people’s rights and maintain freedom of expression for the press. They publish a general editor’s code of practice, plus specific information regarding reporting of a death. There is even guidance about a particular type of death due to the sensitivity of these cases, which I think is worthy of a separate blog post in the future – this pertains to incidences of suicide.

In an information guide written for members of the public, IPSO states a number of reasons for deaths being reported by the media. These include: that the person has died unexpectedly; that there are unusual circumstances related to the death; that the death has particularly affected a community.

The final item on this list may be the one which most of us are familiar with: when someone well-known either in our local community or from the celebrity world dies, the media tends to pay attention and publish tributes. Often this coverage will be positive and, although a reminder of death in such a way can be upsetting, it can also help us to process the bereavement and appreciate that the person remains valued.

As the information booklet continues to explain, there can be other reasons of benefit to the public of reporting deaths. It may be, for example, that there is a particularly dangerous stretch of road, or it could be that there is a threat of illness within a community – as we have recently seen, though this can be for other reasons when we think more broadly; extreme heatwaves can be a good example of this. It can also be helpful for the media to clear up any rumours surrounding the circumstances of deaths – part of their role is to reassure, educate and inform, after all, and if there is negative attention or hysteria building, an article clarifying the situation can be helpful.

Journalists must abide by certain rules when preparing to report on a death, and when delivering their piece. They are always entitled to attend inquests, but do not have to report everything that was said, so information shared via the media may not contain everything that was delivered. They must, however, ensure that reports about a death are accurate, so anything which is redacted cannot impact the story in this way. They are not allowed to publish information which can cause ‘unnecessary upset’ to friends and family, and if approaching them for comment beforehand, they are not allowed to harass people and must approach with ‘sympathy and discretion’.

The age of digital and social media has obviously had a significant impact on the way that deaths are reported, in terms of both the timescale and where information is gathered. Journalists are allowed to use information published by the public online, from tributes and funeral details, to taking photos and comments published via social media platforms. However, it is important to note that these should theoretically only be ones which were available via public – rather than locked or restricted – accounts.

Some of our customers do not wish for funeral details to be shared widely – this is always something that we check before doing so, and any media funeral notice, or details included in an online tribute page created by ourselves are always approved prior to going live. We are also able to make notes on a person’s file, so that details given via phone can be restricted if necessary.

I found the information given by IPSO interesting – I agree with their justifications regarding the reporting of death. It helped to clarify why some stories published digitally can seem a little awkward – it is important to report facts, however we live in a time-sensitive and reactionary culture, so often now stories are published when confirmed details are lacking; when news is still ‘breaking’ it can be frustrating to follow a story such as this. Ultimately, the media tends to be a lot more cautious regarding reporting of deaths which may have criminal involvement, or those which could be caused by suicide, and the complex nature of the latter is something that I’ll discuss via the blog soon.

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Written by Becky Hughes

Community Co-Ordinator

August 30, 2023

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