As journalists, we have been asked if we “enjoy” writing about death. This question is often asked by the relative of a person who has been the subject of an investigation. They are often distressed, angry and deeply hurt.
They usually feel like we’ve delved into some secret part of their life and no one else had the right to know.
And we fully understand that. The answer is never “yes, I like to write about death”. The answer is that none of us like doing it, but there is a very good reason why we do it.
The following quote is from the Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO) guidelines on investigations. This is the organization set up to offer advice on how we should function as journalists.
“The fact that someone is dead is not private. Deaths affect communities as well as individuals and are a legitimate matter for reporting.”
It sounds pretty cold – “the fact that someone is dead is not private” – but it goes to the very heart of why we’re writing about it.
Who can attend an inquest and why is it taking place?
That’s what you need to know. The general public has the right to attend all scheduled inquest hearings in exceptional circumstances and inquests must be held in buildings “accessible to the public without physical barriers so that any member of the public can visit”.
Therefore, all hearings are open to journalists and “fair and accurate reporting of proceedings is encouraged”.
Inquests are conducted when the cause of death may be violent or unnatural, or a person died in prison, police custody, or other state custody.
This is a public investigative process to establish who died and where, when and how the death occurred. It will not establish who is responsible for the death and most inquests are completed within six months of the death.
Why report them?
First of all, it’s worth remembering that reporting on investigations is one of the hardest things journalists have to do and we recognize that a number of people think we shouldn’t be doing it.
But there are three very important reasons why we do it.
In investigation reports, we often draw attention to circumstances that may lead to further death or injury if no preventive action is taken.
By highlighting the facts that led to a tragedy, there is hope that someone reading the story might be able to prevent another tragedy from happening in the future; recognize the early signs of a spiral that could lead someone to commit suicide, realize how little alcohol consumption it takes to cause a fatal accident, or address a health and safety need to prevent an accident at work, etc.
Second, as the press guidelines issued by IPSO indicate, there is a public interest in reporting on investigations, which are public events anyway. By reporting on an inquest, a reporter can dispel any rumors or suspicions about the death.
And third, the principle of open justice applies in coroners’ courts and it is our duty to ensure that the hearings are made public.
Our reports, therefore, are often an impersonal look at the facts of the case and we understand that this can be distressing for families.
Whenever possible, we will approach the relatives present at the hearing and it is the responsibility of the coroner’s office to inform the relatives that the media may be present and report on the conclusions.
Often families do not want to talk to us and we will absolutely respect that. When they do, it allows us to write a more personal narrative in our stories.
But we are unable to accommodate requests we receive to not post any stories at all for the reasons stated above, harsh as that may seem.
We will not sensationalize. We will not be free. We will accurately report the evidence provided at the hearing and the conclusions to educate, dispel any doubt and maintain the principle of open justice.
We understand that this will not satisfy everyone. We understand that people will continue to feel like we are meddling in their personal grief and that was never our intention.
We don’t like reporting on often very personal tragedies, but it’s important that we continue to publish these stories and I sincerely hope this will reduce the risk of similar tragedies occurring in the future.
What can you do?
It’s good for people to know that we attend almost every inquiry in Plymouth and when we do, a story will come to light.
We understand that Plymouth coroners regularly advise people that this is the case and that members of the press may be present.
When approaching families for comment during an inquest, our reporters must do so with due regard to the fact that inquests can be extremely distressing for those who are grieving. They must stop interviewing, prosecuting or photographing members of the public at the request of that person or their representative.
You should never speculate and stick to the facts of the case as presented at the hearing.
IPSO makes it clear that journalists should take particular care when reporting on a suicide, to ensure that they do not provide excessive detail about the method used, which could lead someone to try to copy the method.
If you have any concerns about the accuracy of reporting an investigation, want to add a personal tribute or request changes, you can directly contact the reporter who published the story on Plymouth Live by clicking on their signature, sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephoning 01752 293122.
If you want to go further, the IPSO Helpline is open from 9am to 5.30pm on 0300 123 22 20 or you can email email@example.com.