A new study has found that personal visits, or ‘death knocks’, following sudden deaths may be better than journalists ‘snubbing’ bereaved families and instead relying on social media.
It also found that attempts to protect the bereaved through regulation following the Leveson Inquiry could ‘backfire’by discouraging journalists from contacting families.
The study by Jackie Newton, of Liverpool John Moores University, and Dr Sallyanne Duncan, of the University of Strathclyde, involved interviewing 49 reporters from the regional press and six editors or senior journalists with responsibility for the use of social media in ‘death knock stories”.
They also carried out a further 24 interviews with bereaved groups and families, which went a ‘long way to dispelling the myth that all journalists are uncaring, unprincipled hacks and that all bereaved families want to be left alone”.
Newton and Duncan found that more families now feel excluded from reports of their relatives’ deaths than feel intruded on. ‘A number of families in this study had been prepared by the police for intense media interest in the death of their loved one,’they said.
‘When it did not arrive, or when their loved one’s death was ignored or covered briefly without contact with the family, they felt ‘let down’.
‘One mother of a murder victim said this perceived lack of interest added a further layer of hurt to her bereavement. ‘It was as if my son’s death counted for nothing.’
Journalists now are increasingly expected to use social media to access material without the knowledge of bereaved relatives and friends, but, according to research, though it is legal some people ‘might view it as being similar to hacking”.
And one of the risks of the intense media scrutiny caused by the phone-hacking scandal was that it could make journalists ‘more likely to avoid bereaved families and turn to social networking sites in order to write death knock stories”.
One local newspaper reporter said: ‘Approaching the family is the most uncomfortable, awkward and difficult task…however inevitable and unavoidable…Headlines in the paper may often be the first ‘real’ encounter the bereaved family experience from the tragedy at hand.
‘Sensational headlines become the brutal reality before they themselves have come to terms with their loss. However, relying on friends (when you are unaware of their relationship to the deceased), as opposed to the family, could give a tainted, prejudiced and misconstrued view of the subject.”
‘A virtual version of taking comments from cards and flowers’
The use of material gained from social networks which was already in the public domain was a ‘significant area of contention’among reporters involved in the research.
The consensus was that journalists ‘believe that this is freely available for them to use whilst the public take a different view. Generally, journalists said they did not think that it was intrusive to use comments from a deceased’s site if the profile is set to public, stating that the individual has chosen to publish details of their life on the internet.
‘One daily newspaper journalist described it as ‘a virtual version of taking comments from cards and flowers at the scene'”.
The study also found that families often expect to be contacted by their local newspaper and have been prepared for media attention by the police.
If they do not receive any “they can feel snubbed and are more likely to feel resentful about any subsequent story that is carried,’with one former news editor commenting: ‘I’ve taken calls on the newsdesk from people who have complained that their family tragedy didn’t receive coverage. It’s very hard. What do you say? You’re story wasn’t tragic enough?”
Newton and Duncan concluded that ‘many people have a reasonable expectation that their local paper will cover the death of their loved one in a sensitive manner and that they will be given a role in that coverage”.
They added: ‘As a long-serving news editor in the North West was fond of saying: after a tragic death families in Liverpool expect ‘the undertaker, the priest, and the Liverpool Echo.’
‘Managing such expectations can be difficult in the current situation where fewer journalists are doing more and more work. However, when a tragedy is newsworthy these observations demonstrate that there is a need for the loss to be acknowledged and for the family to be part of the tribute article.
‘One senior editor described this as being ‘part of the memorabilia, as important as the hymn sheet at the funeral'”.
‘None of the journalists or editors we interviewed believed it was acceptable to use social media to avoid the family,’said Duncan, but she also warned that this could change if the Leveson inquiry decided on tougher regulation to police media contact with the bereaved, with journalists turning to social media ‘for fear of falling foul of regulators”
‘We need to bear in mind that the majority of encounters between journalists and the bereaved are anticipated and positive – particularly in the regions,’said Newton. ‘Further protection or regulation is not the answer when many of the bereaved wish to actively participate in stories about their loved ones.”