Journalist Responsibility When Reporting on Death

December 9, 2019

What is a journalist’s responsibility when reporting on death?

A private list with a lot of Canadian journalists discussed this issue last week. It turned out to be a prescient subject. As the week went on, and journalists covering the Montreal Massacre continued naming the mass murderer instead of his victims, I got more dismayed. Given this, I thought I’d share my thoughts with blog readers about the kinds of questions reporters need to ask about their stories.

Please let me know what you think in the comments below.

As a baseline, I think that journalists and everyone else reporting on deaths have a responsibility to decide whether they should publish something or not.  If their work does more harm than good, they need to remain silent.

Figuring out this line can be difficult depending on the situation. I have three rules: begin by asking questions that determine the level of public interest and harm a story might do; focus on commemorating people; ask whether someone is manipulating you and if so, why; make sure that you are reporting news not propaganda; and remember that your responsibility is to the public interest, not the private one.

Begin by Asking Three Questions

As people who work in the public, journalists have always faced a hierarchical set of three questions that change whether a story will be published or not.

1. Does a story have a real public interest?

2. If it does, can publishing a story increase the likelihood that someone will act in the public interest?

3. Who gets harmed if a story gets published? Does the public interest supersede that harm, and if so, how?

Answering these questions can be tricky, but anyone publishing something should not only ask these questions, but they should refrain from publishing something that clearly does more harm than good.

How does that apply to reporting death? That’s when the base rules really matter.

Mass Murders

With mass murderers, I tend to agree with readers who want journalists to avoid naming killers and the organizations they belong to.

We faced the absence of this rule again multiple times last week. Writers and broadcasters continually named the person responsible for the Polytechnique massacre when the women he killed and the men he harmed remain anonymous. I’ve been trying to cover their stories instead.

Suicides

I also want journalists and the police to continue keeping suicides anonymous.

The anguish of the family and the tendency of copycats means that we shouldn’t report suicides when they first occur. We need to write analysis, mental health awareness stories, and other stories later but not immediately after the death occurs. When we do write these stories later, we need to ensure we do so without causing unnecessary harm.

Individual Murders

Murders of individuals fall on either side of the issue. Sometimes, reporting murders is important so that the public knows to protect themselves, particularly when a suspect is on the loose or when the police are looking for clues. But that practice can be abused by the media, for sensational purposes or by the police, for manipulative purposes.

Wars

Wars need to be covered, even when they are street wars. Too often we don’t know that these are happening around the world, and its important to be informed. This can be demoralizing when done badly however. Every day, a war takes place somewhere.

If you want to know which places in the world are suffering, the Canadian Government offers a list of travel advice and advisories about conflict around the world.

The Council on Foreign Relations operates a global conflict tracker that defines wars and other conflicts from a United States of America point of view.

Wikepedia also has a page with current armed conflicts.

Accidental Death

We need to cover accidental deaths to prevent future accidents and to commemorate the lives of victims. Just be careful not to shame a victim.

Responsibility to Commemorate People

If journalists remember to commemorate individuals who take worthwhile action, they rarely stumble. Stories to commemorate people are almost always helpful, regardless of how those people died. There’s fewer and fewer of these stories available, except when families pay to tell them. I think that’s a shame.

Responsibility to avoid Manipulation

Too often journalists forget that there are multiple actors in every story, including our own emotions.

The tendency of journalists to take an “unbiased” viewpoint hurts objectivity. People are always biased. I think it’s more useful to make sure that readers know our biases rather than pretending they don’t exist. Editors and publishers also have biases and making those transparent is crucial.

It’s tough to recognize how much manipulation of the media takes place. Journalists have always been among the many people manipulated by private interests, including the interests of the private owners of the media for whom we work. Our lack of success at that task has led to a dismal rating of trust by the public.

Responsibility to Report News versus Propaganda

The challenge of making sure that we report the news rather than participating in propaganda can be a challenge. We have a responsibility to our readers to do so anyway.

Most of us continually face awkward situations. Our media bosses push for more pleasant coverage of advertisers. Advertisers ask us for favours. This is the constant advertising versus editorial dilemma, and advertisers have won.

In the 1980’s, the Toronto Star tried to take an editorial stand in the travel industry. It looked like the paper won that battle in the short run. I think we all lost the battle in the long run. Partly, because readers have different views about what they want in the travel pages compared to what they want in the news pages. There, they prefer to read pleasant travel stories. They don’t want to know why they shouldn’t travel somewhere.

Nobody wants to read only negative material all the time, even though they want to be informed.

Responsibility to Protect Public Interest

Given that most media owners are private individuals, and the fact that publishers can simply pull stories if they don’t like something, the private interests of a publisher usually win out if there’s a conflict between a private and public interest. Journalists have a responsibility to avoid this.

Even public media operators face private challenges, particularly as they try to raise funds, that can put the public interest in second place. The need to sensationalize stories to attract attention often works against the public interest.

The editorial versus publisher fight became so idealized in the 90’s and early 2000’s that publishers realized that their best bet was to simply fire as many people as they can. That turned readers off and led to the demise or fall of many. Just look at where it led Postmedia. Then publishers realized that perhaps they could get readers back by sensationalizing stories in the way the Buzzfeed and Huffington Post do.

Also, advertisers know how to get what they want. When they couldn’t go to publishers to get something, they went to journalists directly. The Huffington Post publicized that issue when it cracked down on writers who were subsidized by advertisers, but the practice has long been prevalent.

After all, someone has to pay.

Those of us with more idealistic endeavours often find out that we are the ones paying. If not with money, perhaps with time and frustration.

Public Housing Story Example

Several years ago, I did a series of stories about the lack of hygienic conditions, the harassment of people who complained and administrative corruption in public housing complexes. While I was able to help some individuals, the practices that I uncovered continue to this day. People who complain still get kicked out easily, the process for having legitimate complaints heard remains long and convoluted, the number of spots in the system remains inadequate and the court system that handles complaints gets manipulated by bad actors. Plus, my stories added to public misconceptions about poverty and housing. I stopped covering that beat because it took too much effort for limited results. Every now and then, I think it would be worth while to cover again since few others are doing so, but I haven’t yet figured out how to do so effectively without being demoralized about how bad things are.

If you have ideas about how this subject can be covered more effectively, let me know.

In the meantime, I hope everyone thinks carefully about their publishing responsibilities, regardless of how large an audience they reach.

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Tracey Arial

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Tracey Arial

Tracey Arial helps Canadians grow with notable nonfiction and urban agriculture.

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