The Media Ethics of Tragedy Report to the Public

2020 (4 pages)
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K. Sanders says, “Reporting tragedies is necessarily intrusive”. This essay aims to investigate and analyse the ethical dilemmas of a journalist when covering “sensitive business” (Harcup, 2007, 64) such as death within print media and broadcast media. It will focus heavily on discussing potential decisions and applications of a journalist based on the ethical foundations that bind them, when applied to how they handle individual relationships between interviewer, interviewee, publication and reader.

Through evidence provided by media professionals and philosophers, the possible ethical perspectives of this case will be discussed in this essay. The term ‘death knock’ refers to the practice of attaining information about the deceased person through their relatives and loved ones. This usually happens when the cause of death is consequential – usually sudden or unexpected. In this case, the scenario at hand highlights the ethical considerations of the ‘death knock’ following the unfortunate passing of a young girl in a road accident on her way to school. Her mother, inebriated at the time of the interview, confesses her guilt over her daughter’s death, saying she had been exhausted after her graveyard shift and sent her alone to walk to school on a road she knew to be dangerous. The ethical considerations that follow this interview are dependent on, but not limited to: the fact that the organisation backing the reporter is a regional one, the differences in news coverage between print and broadcast, the ethical foundations of the newspaper or broadcaster running this story as well as the interest of the public.

For example, two different regulatory bodies are not necessarily in complete agreement about the approach expected of any journalist toward “Intrusion into grief and shock” (, 2018; National Union of Journalists, 2011). Although print media is self-regulated in the UK, the industry first initiated the establishment of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) which founded a code to regulate the common journalistic standards of practice. The organisation has since been decommissioned and replaced by The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). IPSO Editors’ Code of Practice (, 2018) sheds some light on the aforementioned clause, saying: In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ), a union that supports journalists and promotes professionalism and high ethical standards of journalism, also includes boundaries on a similar point in their code of conduct (National Union of Journalists, 2011), it says: [A journalist] does nothing to intrude into anybody’s private life, grief or distress unless justified by overriding consideration of the public interest.

Where one organisation does not take into account “public interest”, another does. Harcup citing BBC, says “there is no single definition of public interest” (Harcup, 2007,45). Under the umbrella includes “disclosing significant incompetence or negligence” as well as “disclosing information that allows people to make a significantly more informed decision about matters of public importance” (ibid). Depending on the moral grounds of the reporter’s employer, the level of detail that goes into the published final story and the angle in which it is approached will undoubtedly be affected. In comparison, the TV, radio and video sector – in other words broadcast media, has its own regulatory body, Ofcom UK. Within its own broadcasting code, it is written on the subject of “suffering and distress” (, 2017):

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  1. Broadcasters should not take or broadcast footage or audio of people caught up in emergencies, victims of accidents or those suffering a personal tragedy, even in a public place, where that results in an infringement of privacy, unless it is warranted or the people concerned have given consent.
  2. People in a state of distress should not be put under pressure to take part in a programme or provide interviews, unless it is warranted.
  3. Broadcasters should take care not to reveal the identity of a person who has died or of victims of accidents or violent crimes, unless and until it is clear that the next of kin have been informed of the event or unless it is warranted.
  4. Broadcasters should try to reduce the potential distress to victims and/or relatives when making or broadcasting programmes intended to examine past events that involve trauma to individuals (including crime) unless it is warranted to do otherwise. This applies to dramatic reconstructions and factual dramas, as well as factual programmes.

In particular, so far as is reasonably practicable, surviving victims and/or the immediate families of those whose experience is to feature in a programme, should be informed of the plans for the programme and its intended broadcast, even if the events or material to be broadcast have been in the public domain in the past. Between print media and broadcast media, there are a fair few differences in approach that should be considered. According to the aforementioned code, it is prudent that persons in a state of distress – in this case, the deceased’s mother – should be handled gently and should not be “put under pressure” to take part in any broadcast. They should also be properly briefed of what they should expect regardless of whether the “events or material to be broadcast have been in the public domain in the past” (ibid).

According to (Sanders, K. 2003, 94), “Being a good reporter is not being emptied of humanity.” This statement is supported by (Smith, 2008, 216) who agrees that “the best investigative reporters are compassionate”. As much as journalists are concerned that compassion “runs counter to objective reporting” and that they run the risk of forgetting “their obligations to keep the public informed” (Smith, 2008, 214), it must be understood that when written well, showing compassion within one’s report will not necessarily change the neutral stance of the news piece. Instead, it can induce feeling within the reader and in turn affect change, while still dutifully reporting the truth as is expected of them. (Sanders, K. 2003, 95) says, “We are moved to act not because of any ‘interest’ or family link to the person who suffers but simply because he or she is a fellow human being”. Hence, a report that succeeds a ‘death knock’ can only be produced with due respect and sympathy.

One obituary writer, Amy Silvers of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel always approached family members to ask if it was a “good time to talk. It is her way of quickly acknowledging that she knows she is intruding” (Brooks et al., 2008, 220). Ensuring that – in this case, the mother of deceased child – knows that the journalist is aware of what a hard time it must be, but that they are still obligated to carry out their job. It is also possible that the mother is more welcoming of the journalist because of the overwhelming need to share her grief. (Greenslade, 1999) says, “for every snub at a grief-stricken household, there are five other willing to open their doors and offer tea, opening their hearts to a stranger with a notebook”. That being said, it could also be a good idea to offer the mother the opportunity to share her opinion on the end result of the article as “it can be a really positive experience if they are able to discuss the content with the journalist or programme-maker”. If written well, the article will not only resonate with readers, but it can also serve to ease her suffering.

Every probable approach and outcome of the interview changes based on the ethical ideologies held in practice. The first such ethical theory that could be adopted is consequentialism, also referred to as utilitarianism, where an action is seen as morally right if “the consequences of that action are more favourable than unfavourable” (Fieser, n.d.). The latter term was first coined by Jeremy Bentham, who theorized that “the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the measure of right and wrong” (Sanders, K. 2003, 19). This theory suggests that the article that follows the interview must be presented in a way that will result in most involved parties being happy – involved parties being the interviewer, interviewee, reader and publication. Is it then right for the journalist or their organisation to “judge a pleasure’s quality?” (ibid). In this case, perhaps the article could be angled in such a way that brings focus on the location of the harrowing death of the young girl – the road that is known to be dangerous. If through fact-checking it is found that the interviewee’s claims of the safety of the affected road is true, “it also creates public pressure on the authorities to reveal the truth, uncover the reasons and do something” (Greenslade, 1999). Local readers previously affected by the same issue would be more supportive of the aggrieved family and be able to sympathize with them.

The second theory of ethics to be considered is Immanuel Kant’s deontological theory, also referred to as nonconsequentialist theories. Unlike utilitarianism, which might be seen as irresponsible due to its sole focus being ‘the ends justify the means’, deontological ethics focus on one’s duty and principle. This suggests that one’s morality is “intensely personal” in that we are each held accountable for keeping our “own moral house in order”; and regardless of “how morally good their consequences” may be, “some choices are morally forbidden” (Alexander and Moore, 2016). Adopting this ethical theory would require the journalist to report the news of death factually and accurately, but without considering the outcome of doing just that. Another regulatory body – The Editors’ Code of Practice Committee – that serves to write, review and revise the Code of Practice to maintain “a proper balance between protecting the rights of the individual and the public's right to know, which can sometimes compete”, requires the following regarding “accuracy” of a report:

  1. The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
  2. A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
  3. A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.
  4. The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
  5. A publication must report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party, unless an agreed settlement states otherwise, or an agreed statement is published.

Therefore, reporting the facts as they are: that the mother was intoxicated at the time the interview took place, that she was too tired to take her daughter to school after completing her night shift at work and that she experienced guilt over the death. However, depending on the moral code of the publication, if this in turn renders it necessary to consider “public interest” (National Union of Journalists, 2011), then there is a risk that the published article would include more sensitive details than strictly required, which may cause the grieving mother to be subject to scrutiny by members of the local community.

As a result of this, some might prefer approaching the story using rights ethics. A right is a “justified claim against another person's behaviour” (Fieser, n.d.). According to the (Human Rights Act, 1998), it protects “Freedom of thought, religion and belief: you can believe what you like and practise your religion or beliefs”. This perspective suggests the need to measure the family’s right to privacy in contrast to the local community’s right to know. In conclusion, regardless of the ethical theories one chooses to follow in the face of ethical dilemmas through the “necessarily intrusive” (Sanders, K. 2003, 94) “sensitive business” (Harcup, 2007, 64) that is reporting a tragedy, it still boils down to the choices of the journalist and their publication. These choices are a reflection of ones character and founding moral values. There is no right or wrong, there is only cause and effect; and what you choose to do.

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