Serving professional journalism since 1912

Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

How to avoid hating journalists when disaster strikes

Somebody I know who became a college principal described recently how much he hated the press after having to manage the fallout from the deaths of his students in a road traffic accident. Reporters were described as “vultures” who were “shouting down the phone to get details before the families were ready” and “publishing pictures of the students having somehow got their names, and turning up at the gates”.

He asked for my advice. I responded with sympathy and said that he and the grieving families of his students should not be confronted with any insensitive and harassing behaviour. I offered all the advice I could provide, including the 24-hour Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) harassment helpline number.

I explained that, under Clause 3 of the Editors’ Code, journalists should identify themselves and the publication or agency they work for; that everyone has the right to tell journalists clearly that they do not wish to speak to them or be photographed and that they are asking them to stop. I said that under the Code of Practice, journalists must not continue their activities once asked to stop; that If anyone at home does not wish to answer their door they can pin a short note to it to say that they do not wish to speak to journalists and do not want to be disturbed.

IPSO also advises if anyone is being telephoned repeatedly and does not wish to speak to journalists they should change their answerphone message to say that only personal callers should leave a message and they do not wish to speak to the media. I pointed out that the Prevention of Harassment Act 1997 makes it a civil wrong and criminal offence for any journalist to leave somebody with a perception of distress on at least two occasions through unwanted approaches.

Distressing circumstances

My friend’s Facebook page filled up with angry anti-journalist comments; some of them asking how the journalists would feel if it was their daughter or son who had been killed. The reality, of course, is that generally journalists do know how it feels to experience tragedy at home and at work. Very early on in their careers they often have to learn how to deal with the stress of approaching bereaved families and communicate with people in very distressing circumstances.

It is also not uncommon for journalists to be victims of the very incidents they report on. This is certainly the case with terrorism. Journalists regularly see and experience aspects of carnage, horror and death that most people would never encounter once in a life-time. In the London Bridge and Borough attack, a BBC journalist going home from work was a fraction of an inch from being killed when a van mowed down people before her very eyes. Later on, a Sunday Express journalist nearly paid with his life when he placed himself in front of terrorists indiscriminately plunging their lethal blades into anyone they came across.

When the worst things happen in the world, it is the duty of journalists to report and communicate, but to do so they have to have the trust and respect of the human society they are a part of. Recent events suggest this is not happening. The Kerslake Report into the Manchester Etihad Arena terrorist bombing complained: “Most participants who commented on their experience of the media in the attack aftermath were negative. People talked about feeling ‘hounded’ and ‘bombarded’.”

Some described being put under pressure to participate in TV programmes. At the Etihad there were concerns with people feeling accosted by media crews. Specific mention was made of photos being taken through the glass windows of a family being given news of bereavement. There were descriptions of people having to run to cars with coats over their heads to escape. Similarly, someone described having to be taken into hospital to see their injured child via a staff entrance because of the behaviour of some media representatives at the main entrance.

Official notification

Several people told of the physical presence of crews outside their homes. One mentioned the forceful attempt by a reporter to gain access through their front door by ramming a foot in the doorway. It was reported that the child of one family was given condolences on the doorstep before official notification of the death of her mother. Another family told how their child was stopped by journalists whilst making their way to school.

At the hospitals, families attending to look for missing loved ones and visiting the injured described having to force their way through scrums of reporters who “wouldn’t take no for an answer”. One mother, who was herself seriously injured as was her daughter, spoke of the press ringing her on her mobile whilst she was recovering in hospital. A member of staff on her ward spoke of a note offering £2,000 for information being included in a tin of biscuits given to the staff.

The report described how a young woman was visited by a reporter at their home and given condolences on the death of her brother whilst her parents were at the Etihad Stadium. This took place on the morning following the attack. The family were not told that their son was likely to be among the fatalities until later that day.

The report alleged at least two examples of impersonation. One respondent talked on the phone to someone saying they were a Bereavement Nurse; whilst another described talking to someone who they felt sounded to be more like a journalist but who purported to be from the police.

Some families mentioned the repeated use of their loved one’s photo causing renewed upset each time. International media used an image taken inside the foyer in which the deceased could be identified. Families were angered by personal Facebook and other social media accounts being accessed and information and photos used without permission. Inaccurate details about their loved ones, such as a wrongly spelled name, caused considerable upset.

The Kerslake report did say that a number of families spoke in praise of sympathetic reporting by the Manchester Evening News and other papers local to the bereaved. Those involved in the Disaster Victim Identification process said the media had respected the dignity of the deceased and the privacy of the families when making visits to see their loved ones.

The Manchester Evening News raised more than £1 million for the victims.

One difficulty is that the Kerslake Review has taken all the media complaints as being accurate accounts of media conduct. These allegations have not been investigated. They have only been reported. IPSO Chief Executive Matt Tee quite rightly said: “The press has a narrow path to tread between reporting accurately and sympathetically on tragedies on the public’s behalf and respecting the feelings of those most directly affected.”

The volume and intensity of anger does suggest that clearly not everyone is tip-toeing effectively on this narrow path and this includes broadcasters as much as the press. A key recommendation of the report is that IPSO should engage a review of the Editors’ Code in the light of the complaints of bad media conduct and consider “developing a new code specifically to cover such events.”

The report also advised wider education and planning on the role of the media by police family liaison officers, statutory responders, first response agencies and local authorities.

Round-table discussion

The Kerslake inquiry held a round-table discussion with the media in Manchester and recognized how the role of social media considerably accelerated the pace at which information on individual families became more widely available.

It learned that the BBC had established a system so that a single BBC journalist was assigned to each any one family affected by the bombing so the BBC was not making multiple contacts.

It strikes me that much more work needs to be done. ISPO should not be alone in this process. Ofcom, professional unions, and the main broadcasters such as ITV, Sky, the BBC, and the Foreign Press Association in Britain should be involved as well. Those news publishers refusing to be regulated by IPSO, the Guardian, Independent online, London Standard, and Financial Times should be participating rather than hiding or pontificating.

It is also apparent that members of the public and those people likely to have direct contact with journalists in the midst of human tragedy and disaster have little idea of the rights and needs of professional journalists when covering large scale human tragedies. Reporters do have to ask questions and obtain accurate information. It is a stressful situation for all concerned.

IPSO has produced an excellent 13-page briefing, “Press Report on a Death: Information for the Public”. It would be surprising if many people in the emergency services and indeed many media relations and press officers for public and private bodies throughout the country have any idea of its existence.

The first duty of any journalist when reporting human tragedy is to behave decently and respectfully toward those they have contact with. The learning and understanding of this duty is an ongoing and never-ending journey. But the need for liaison and education about the media’s role in these events can be a matter for negotiated understanding rather than scapegoating and condemnation.

Prof Tim Crook