Tips of the Trainer: Guidelines for dealing with death

Journalists can be reasonably compared to vultures when there’s a dead body around. It’s not long before we start circling, eager for angles.

Death makes a good story, especially if it is unusual or suspicious. Once we have reported the original incident, we get another crack at it with the inquest. But we should make sure our report of the inquest contains the latest angle (probably the verdict or the cause of death), rather than just informing readers of something that happened weeks or months earlier.

Covering inquests is fairly straightforward –procedures are usually relaxed and easy to follow. But there are some pitfalls and things to watch out for when we write them up:

1. We should develop good contacts with coroners’ officers to find out which cases are being heard when. Although the Home Office urged coroners in 1980 and again in 1987 to make sure the press are properly informed of inquests, compliance caries from court to court. Personal contact is the most reliable approach.

2. Inquests are now always held when someone has died in unnatural or violent circumstances abroad and the body is brought back to a particular coroner’s area.

3. Reports must include the cause of death and the verdict –the jury returns a verdict, the coroner records one.

4. Many publications avoid putting verdicts at the end of the story, in case it gets cut or “drops out” of the text box.

5. Simplify complex medical terminology, do not simply repeat it and bemuse the reader. If we don’t understand it, we should ask the pathologist, or another medical expert, to interpret it for us.

6. Take care reporting suicides. Coroners are often very reluctant to pass a suicide verdict, even when the evidence strongly indicates that a person killed themselves. Inquest reports do not indicate that a death was a suicide unless the coroner passes a suicide verdict. If they do, we risk being reported to the PCC for inaccuracy.

7. Many editors follow Royal Pharmaceutical Society guidelines and omit the names of drugs used in overdose cases, in order to discourage “copycat” deaths (and perhaps, some say, to protect Society members’ brand names).

8. Inquest reports receive absolute privilege, the same as court cases, provided they are fair, accurate and published contemporaneously.

9. We need to be discreet when approaching bereaved families, etc, for comments on a case – the Editors’ Code of Conduct says that we should not “harass” them.

10. We should take care getting quotes from jurors and bereaved relatives when someone is facing a criminal trial in connection with a death. Their quotes could prejudice the trial.

Cleland Thom runs Journalism Training Services (www.ctjts.com). He can be contacted at cleland.thom@tesco.net

by Cleland Thom

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