The death-knock debate: Until you have made the call, how do you know if it is in the public interest?

Chris Wheal makes the interesting point on his blog today that perhaps the PCC code of conduct should be toughened up when it comes to dealing with the bereaved.

He writes out of close personal experience of course, having written earlier in the week about the challenges of dealing with the press after the death of his nine-year-old nephew in a rope-swing accident.

He notes that whereas the PCC code says: “In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively.”

The NUJ’s code says: “A journalist does nothing to intrude into anybody’s private life, grief or distress unless justified by overriding consideration of the public interest.”

As Roy Greenslade points out on his blog, all a family has to do if they don’t want to be bothered by the press in such circumstances is contact the Press Complaints Commission.

But perhaps the PCC needs to work harder to make sure that police family liaison officers tell families this is the case.

The NUJ definition is a bit unrealistic in my opinion because until you have knocked on the door of that bereaved family you don’t know whether or not there is an overriding public interest in doing what you are doing.

Whilst working on the Battle Observer as a young reporter, I found out that a local woman – a mother of four or five – had committed suicide by covering herself in petrol and setting herself alight.

I drove up to the family’s house and sat outside, thinking long and hard about whether I had the courage to knock on that door. I couldn’t imagine what horrors they were going through and didn’t dare add to them.

When I eventually did knock at the door the husband welcomed me inside when I explained who I was and appeared to have been expecting a visit from the local newspaperman. He handed me a pre-prepared statement revealing that he had been warning the local psychiatric services for years that his wife was at risk of suicide and that he had been begging them, without success, to commit her to residential care.

The public interest in telling that story was clear.

My view is that if a local newspaper is going to write about the death of someone on its patch it is only courteous to make contact personally with the family to give them the opportunity to let them know that a piece is appearing and give them the opportunity to contribute.

That said, Chris’s blog postings still provide plenty for all journalist to ponder.

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