Friday 23 July 2010

Chris Wheal: Changing death knocking

Chris Wheal has a new post on his blog today suggesting changes to the way the media currently "death knocks" relatives after a family tragedy.
It follows his earlier blog on death knocking, based on his and his family's own experience after the death of his young nephew in an accident, and his interview on the Today programme this morning in which he pointed to the differences between the NUJ's Code of Conduct and the Editors' Code of Practice over clauses on intrusion into grief by journalists.
Chris says:
Change the System: "I think there is scope for a better system. The police have excellent family liaison officers. They have the patience of saints and an ability to drink gallons of tea for as long as a family needs them. Perhaps they could be the starting point, handing over to the police press office soon after?
"Each family could be given a leaflet outlining the media’s likely response, making clear that the press can and will get some details and may well get inaccurate information from third-party sources. The press is also likely to find someone who will give them a photo and comment. It may therefore be better to issue some information and the family’s preferred picture up front."
Pooled journalism: "We could have a national protocol agreeing to “press pooling” in these circumstances. That way either the family or the police press liaison officer would only have to deal with one journalist. I’d make the default position that the press make no effort to intrude in a private person’s grief – as the NUJ code states. Families have the right to choose that option and let the police media person deal with the press. Families who do wish to speak to the press themselves can say so and that can then be arranged for them, but still with the pooled system. They would need to speak only to one journalist. A third position would deal with the financial offers. If families wish to take up financial offers that may be available, then I think it fair that all restrictions be removed. The police cannot be involved in financial matters. A family choosing to take money needs to source their own press advice.
An industry solution: "These are just early thoughts. Maybe it wouldn’t work. Maybe the ideas need fleshing out, revising or rewriting completely. But there must be a better way and I’d like to think we journalists could come up with it ourselves."
  • Dominic Ponsford at Press Gazette asks how do you know it's in the public interest until you make the call? He remembers: "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."

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