Reporting Bad News

Negotiating the Boundaries Between Intrusion and Fair Representation in Media Coverage of Death

by Sallyanne Duncan (Author) Jackie Newton (Author)
©2017 Textbook XII, 224 Pages


Reporting Bad News addresses a gap in the literature concerning death reporting and stories of personal tragedy. Much has been written about disasters and large-scale tragedies, but this research concentrates on individual loss and the relationship between journalist and vulnerable interviewee. While much discussion in this area is negative, focusing on the ethics of intrusion and journalists who act insensitively under pressure, the authors’ aim is to turn this focus around by looking at best practice in encounters between reporters and the bereaved, survivors and the vulnerable. It is hoped that by examining contemporary death reporting, explaining its public service role, proposing a new model of ethical participation and offering a structure for sensitive interviewing, the most harmful aspects of the process can be reduced for both the journalist and, more importantly, the grieving and the victims. The work is based on years of research by the authors, on interviews with journalists, journalism educators, bereaved families and support groups and is supplemented with a detailed analysis of the reporting of death across academic disciplines and perspectives.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • References
  • Chapter 1. The History and Context of Death in the News
  • A History of Attitudes to Death, Dying and Bereavement
  • Death in the News: A History of Sudden Death Affecting Ordinary Citizens
  • The 1500s and 1600s: Reporting the Macabre – Murder, Mayhem and Public Executions
  • The 1700s: Early Newspapers and the Seeds of Modern Journalism
  • 1704: The Storm: The First Example of Modern Disaster Coverage
  • The 1800s: The Start of Crime Scene Reporting, Sensationalism and Investigating Sudden Death
  • 1836: The Murder of Helen Jewett
  • The 1900s: Early Reporting of the Deceased and the Bereaved
  • 1914: The Early Days of the Popular Press and the Death Knock Interview
  • The 1920s Onwards: A Time of Mass Circulation and Intrusion into Grief
  • The Last Decades of the Twentieth Century: A Time of Community Grief and 3,000 Obituaries
  • References
  • Chapter 2. The Contemporary Context of Death Reporting
  • Death’s Renewed Visibility
  • Considering the Public Interest
  • Storytelling in Grief
  • Understanding Bereavement
  • References
  • Chapter 3. Negotiating Ethical Boundaries
  • Ethical Tools: Codes of Conduct and Professional Standards
  • Minimizing Harm and Seeking the Truth
  • Doing Ethics: Applying Codes of Conduct to Real Situations
  • Thinking Tools: Using Ethical Theories in the News Process
  • Ethics which Emphasize Rules and Duties
  • Ethics which Emphasize Consequences of Actions
  • Ethics about Character
  • References
  • Chapter 4. Ethical Participation: A New Way Forward
  • The Process of Ethical Participation
  • Context
  • How Does It Work?
  • A Way Forward
  • Clarity
  • How Does It Work?
  • A Way Forward
  • Control
  • How Does It Work?
  • A Way Forward
  • Final Thoughts
  • References
  • Chapter 5. Knocking on the Door: Journalists’ Experiences
  • Paddy Shennan, Journalist at the Liverpool Echo
  • Tanya Thompson, Former Journalist at the Scotsman
  • Emma Bird, Freelance Journalist and Personally Bereaved
  • References
  • Chapter 6. Encountering the Media: The Knock at the Door
  • The Need to Talk
  • Intrusion and the Danger of Exclusion
  • Representations of the Deceased and the Perpetrator
  • Does Contact with Families Aid Journalists’ Sensitivity to Images of Death?
  • Public Appeals
  • Labelling of Victims and Their Newsworthiness
  • Accuracy as Respect
  • References
  • Chapter 7. The Sensitive Interview
  • The Journalistic Interview
  • Power Dynamics and Challenges
  • The Sensitive Interview
  • 1. Greeting – how does the journalist introduce themselves in these testing circumstances?
  • 2. Establish relationship – and set the parameters of the interview
  • 3. Central task – in most situations this is the story of the person’s life, similar to an obituary
  • 4. Re-establish relationship – in terms of professional purpose
  • 5. The parting
  • 6. The aftermath?
  • The Effects of Time
  • A Word about Training and Education
  • References
  • Chapter 8. Depicting Stories of Death: News Frames and Narratives
  • Framing News of Death
  • Narratives
  • The People in the Story
  • The Cherished Deceased
  • The Bereft Survivor
  • The Supportive Acquaintance and the Authority Figure
  • Images as News Frames
  • Images of Normal Life
  • Final Thoughts
  • References
  • Chapter 9. Reporting Suicide: The Last Taboo?
  • Guidelines and Good Practice: Responsible Reporting by Journalists
  • Copycat Behaviour: The Need to Take Care
  • Method and Location
  • Sensationalism/Romanticising Suicide
  • Celebrity Cases
  • Murder-Suicide
  • Language
  • Inclusion of Helplines and Resource Material
  • Statutory Regulation: The New Zealand Experience
  • The Bereaved and the Media
  • Positive and Negative Encounters
  • The Importance of Accuracy
  • Apparent Tensions between Media Guidelines and the Rights of the Family
  • Taking a More Constructive Approach
  • References
  • Chapter 10. The Emotional Impact on Journalists
  • The Need to Take Care
  • The Emotional and Psychological Cost of Trauma
  • Vicarious Trauma
  • Resilience, Self-Care and Its Limits
  • Best Practice in Trauma Awareness
  • The Role of Peer Support
  • The Value of Peer Support
  • Watchful Waiting
  • Culture Change
  • “At Risk” Roles
  • Photographers and Picture Editors
  • The Digital Production Desk: The New Frontline in Vicarious Trauma
  • Freelancers
  • Final Thoughts
  • References
  • Chapter 11. Looking Forward
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index

| ix →


Figure 1.1: The Tribute Story to Annie Wallis in the Hull Daily Mail, February 19, 1914. Credit: Mirrorpix, Trinity Mirror Publishing Limited.

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This book has been a labour of love inspired by so many stories of loss told poignantly and honestly by parents, children, siblings, wider relatives and good friends. Without them it would not have been possible. The same is true of the many journalists who willingly contributed their views, attitudes and personal stories in order to “give something back to their profession”. We are beholden to them. The authors would like to thank colleagues and friends who have supported our endeavours and offered sage advice during the production of this book. Specifically, Sallyanne Duncan would like to thank her journalism colleagues at the University of Strathclyde, Dr Petya Eckler and Dr Michael Higgins, for their support and constructive criticism which assisted in shaping her thinking on aspects of this book. Special thanks also to Lyn Barnes for courteously critiquing Chapters Three, Four and Nine and for her enthusiasm for this project. Sallyanne is also indebted to James Hollings for his perceptive contribution to Chapter Nine, regarding the statutory regulation of suicide reporting in New Zealand. Jackie Newton would like to thank in particular the two inspirational people who set her off on this study and who have helped guide her through with their wisdom and generous advice: Marie McCourt and John Suffield MBE of SAMM Merseyside. Both lost children to murder and both have dedicated their lives thereafter to helping ← xi | xii → victims’ families. Special thanks also go to Jean Taylor of Families Fighting for Justice and Pauline Fielding of Roadpeace for their early insights and experiences. Being allowed in to group meetings was a privilege and an education that opened the door to many interviews and conversations. She is eternally grateful to all who took part. Jackie also needs to acknowledge present and former colleagues in journalism and academe who have shared their stories in meeting rooms, cafes and over pints in pubs. There’s a sincere wish from the profession to improve the news media’s treatment of victims and their families and she thanks them all for their contributions. All the good stuff is down to them. All the mistakes and misapprehensions are hers.

We are extremely grateful to Pauline Diamond Salim, who did a fantastic job in gathering, analysing and categorising a wealth of literature for Chapter Ten, The Emotional Impact on the Journalist. Her experiences as an award-winning journalist provided a special insight that was invaluable to this project. Thank you also to those journalists and former journalists who willingly gave up their own time from their busy schedules to provide us with illuminating and startlingly frank accounts of their reporting of traumatic events: Paddy Shennan, Tanya Thompson and Emma Bird.

We wish to express our gratitude to Mirrorpix, Trinity Mirror Publishing Limited for permission to reproduce the newspaper article of the Cottingham Tragedy from the Hull Daily Mail, dated February 19, 1914.

Finally, we would like to thank Mary Savigar and Kathryn Harrison, commissioning editors at Peter Lang, for their patience and support in seeing this project through to fruition.

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Media reporting of death is unavoidable in today’s globalised society. Whether it is stories of a single unexpected loss, images of distant suffering, or breaking news of major tragedies, death is intrinsic to the 24/7 news cycle of international events. Behind these incidents are individuals whose lives have been wrenched apart by pain and loss and who have intense, personal stories of grief to tell journalists around the world. In covering these stories journalists are swayed by the professional expectations and cultural influences involved in the reporting of death, trauma and bereavement of ordinary citizens. Many achieve this task with great sensitivity, grappling with ethical dilemmas to produce powerful pieces of journalism that relate stories of human tragedy and the loss of loved ones. They produce articles that can move others to take action, thus fulfilling their public service function, and can raise awareness of issues around reporting death that can have an effect on a community’s public health and well-being. However, the focus is rarely on journalists getting things right and acting responsibly. Instead, it is journalists who act insensitively under pressure and prioritise getting the story who are at the forefront of the debate about ethical journalism.

The aim of this book is to turn this focus around by looking at what works in the relationship between journalists and the bereaved, survivors and the vulnerable. It is hoped that by examining good practice in contemporary ← 1 | 2 → death reporting, explaining its public service role and proposing a new model of ethical participation we can help change the wider perception of the practice while offering journalists a tool with which to assess their actions. It is also hoped that by offering a new structure for sensitive interviewing and a five-narrative model for story-telling the most harmful aspects of the process can be reduced for both the journalist and, more importantly, the grieving and the victims. The work is based on years of research by the authors, on interviews with journalists, journalism educators, bereaved families and support groups and is supplemented with a detailed analysis of the reporting of death across academic disciplines and perspectives. It includes findings which challenge orthodox ethical thinking and were problematic even to the authors, who have spent years contemplating the issues and researching the field. We have built on these findings to offer models and frameworks we hope will be of use to journalists when they are making ethical decisions on coverage, interviewing newsworthy victims or the bereaved and writing stories of grief and loss.

For instance, while ethical concerns about intrusion into grief are commonplace, little attention is paid to the inclusion of the voices of the deceased’s family and friends in the story. Such inclusion is often as important to them as any concerns about intrusion into their privacy, yet this is rarely considered when discussing the much-maligned Western concept of the “death knock”, in which a journalist contacts bereaved relatives to interview them about their deceased loved one. In this book we aim to redefine this form of death reporting by explaining why such a practice still exists in the twenty-first century. We argue for a more positive role for the journalist in tragic circumstances through ethical participation. Against this backdrop we advocate that the “death knock” report is often merely the starting point of the bereaved expressing their grief through the media and present a five-narrative model of how relatives talk publicly to journalists about their loss over time, as well as framing the key interviewees within these stories. We recognise that change is rapid in the media today as journalists embrace new methods prompted by technology but as they adapt to the digital world it is vital to note that some traditional reporting techniques are fundamental to telling people’s stories.

In addition, this work is published as the traditional hierarchical model of media accountability is weakening and waning; losing ground to the internet and new publishing technologies where anyone can report stories about themselves and their communities, where the public have greater involvement in the news process and can act as fact checkers and gatekeepers through ← 2 | 3 → user generated content, posts on social media and commentary on blogs. This is a democratic model of press accountability, a non-hierarchical, inclusive approach that depends more on building relationships and sharing. It can often fit uncomfortably with the previous top-down ethical direction of a news organisation, which has evolved through the institutional level of legislation, state appointed regulatory systems, standards watchdogs and pressure groups, to the industry level of professional bodies, self-regulation through codes and rules, and journalism unions (adapted from Weibull & Börjesson, 1995).

There is no shortage of institutional and industry-based guidance on how journalists should conduct themselves but often it is framed in a broad-sweep approach that lacks specificity and is dependent on journalists’ personal interpretation and application. Those journalists who have an underdeveloped ethical literacy can find themselves making rash decisions on the action to take. Tension may arise in the ethical decision making process between what the journalist thinks personally and the professional expectation of them by others, or indeed, their perception of that professional expectation. For example, some editorial positions on ethical issues can remain unexpressed in news rooms and reporters can take action by inferring what they think their editors expect them to do in certain circumstances, rather than what they ought to do. Adopting an ethical participation approach where the journalist focusses on context, clarity and control may provide them with a means of effecting more responsible reporting of the bereaved and traumatised.

In Chapter One we reflect on attitudes to death throughout media history and discuss key occurrences in journalists’ coverage of death and their influence on modern reporting. Death has been making the news for centuries but the deaths of ordinary citizens and the reactions of their loved ones were seldom at the centre of these articles, if they appeared at all. Most early journalism focussed on criminal acts, punishments or obituaries of noted people. Death of ordinary citizens, particularly unexpected death, tended to be a private affair but in the last few decades media reporting has led to it becoming more visible and public. This chapter charts attitudes to death from the rise of secularization and advances in science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries through the Victorians’ fascination with mourning to the twentieth century, an era when death was a private matter despite some sensational reporting of people’s personal grief, through to its reinstatement in public discourse in recent years.

Chapter Two introduces our perspective on what constitutes death reporting by examining its cultural importance. Significant connections exist ← 3 | 4 → between memorialisation of the deceased and death narratives (Kitch, 2000; Newton & Duncan, 2012). Sociological and anthropological models of grieving such as that of Walter (1996) see the telling of the deceased’s life story as a natural and positive phenomenon. This chapter suggests parallels between funeral eulogy, therapeutic interaction for loss and the stories told by journalists on behalf of families (Graves, 2009; Marwit & Klass, 1995). It also considers advice from bereavement counsellors which offers insights into the process of grieving and suggests that aspects of journalistic storytelling can be beneficial to acceptance of loss.

With numerous reviews of professional media standards throughout the world an understanding of journalism ethics is central to responsible reporting of vulnerable people and this is discussed in Chapter Three. Generally, journalists are unfamiliar with ethical theories and their application to specific situations but they can be highly tuned to dilemmas they encounter in daily reporting, particularly in relation to balancing the need to report truthfully with the aspiration to avoid harming those involved in their stories. Consequently, they are often faced with making difficult ethical decisions by themselves. This chapter lays out regulatory and ethical obligations placed on them during death reporting, identify problematic situations and suggests the use of ethical theories such as duty ethics, consequentialism and virtue ethics as tools to unpack the emergent ethical dilemmas.

Reporting the bereaved can be viewed as a hierarchical process where the journalist is in control and the grieving play a passive, disengaged role with no participation in any ethical processes. Greater involvement in these processes could benefit both the grieving relatives and the reporter, particularly in this interactive age. They need to be involved in the ethical decisions that are being made about them, not just in the provision of content. Consequently, in Chapter Four we suggest a new paradigm – ethical participation – where the journalist liaises honestly with bereaved relatives to gain informed access to their story through clarity of purpose and intent, where the information they are given or they retrieve from elsewhere is placed in an appropriate context and by doing both these relatives achieve greater control over their story. This chapter explains our model of ethical participation and the concepts within it of context, clarity and control, suggesting a way forward for responsible reporting of the bereaved and traumatized in an increasingly participatory world.

Reporting stories about death can have a profound effect on journalists. It is arguably one of the most challenging tasks they will perform in their career. As with any sensitive story, they have to consider potential harms that might ← 4 | 5 → be caused by their reporting and have to think about adhering to codes of conduct and applying the law, as well as being able to write an accurate story by deadline. However, with reporting sudden tragic loss, they also need to be concerned about the unpredictability of the relatives’ response to their contact, anxiety at having to deal with death and the grieving, and intruding on what many would regard as a private time (Duncan & Newton, 2010). All of these factors can have a detrimental effect on the reporter’s ability to perform the task. In Chapter Five we explore journalists’ perceptions and experiences of doing a death knock story. Each situation necessitates a tailored approach but lessons can be learned from others’ experiences. In this chapter three journalists reflect on their actions when covering stories about the bereaved. Their accounts raise issues about the journalist’s emotional turmoil, their feelings about the death knock story, being professional, consideration of the bereaved and traumatised, their purpose and role, and thinking about the effect of their reporting on those in the story and beyond.

However sympathetic journalists are to news of an individual tragedy, they cannot give equal treatment to all. Inevitably this means that “newsworthy” victims will be given more attention; that ordinary people will not receive the same treatment as extraordinary people; and that some reluctant families and friends will be pursued for comment when perhaps other families would be happy to offer a tribute – and instead have to pay for an obituary in the back pages of the newspaper or create their own one on a memorial site (Hanusch, 2010). Chapter Six looks at the ethics of inclusion (of the family) in death reporting, suggesting that it is an issue which has long been ignored because of our rightful concerns about intrusion into grief. Our research considers death reporting from the point of view of the families and friends left behind, and their voices are heard in this chapter, along with evidence from groups such as Support After Murder and Manslaughter and Roadpeace. It examines the characteristics of loss through specific circumstances such as murder, manslaughter and “everyday” traffic accident and considers how journalists can approach families sensitively. Much has been written in the fields of media studies, criminology and victimology about the labelling of certain victims of crime and their place in the news hierarchy (Christie, 1986; Feist, 1999; Greer, 2007; Reiner, 2007). Our research contrasts this work with the news values of such crimes and journalistic approaches to types of victim, including popular representations of the traumatised and bereaved.

In Chapter Seven we examine psychological and sociological theories of social interaction with a detailed examination of the sensitive media interview ← 5 | 6 → in the light of the seminal work of Michael Argyle amongst others. A framework for such interviews is presented, based on Argyle’s episode sequence of human interaction. This chapter looks at the preparation (or apparent inadequate preparation) of young journalists for such an encounter and considers ways of better equipping them to approach ethically and sensitively – including in-house training and role-play. It also considers the need to develop greater self-reliance as more experienced journalists disappear from the profession, leaving less experienced staff without mentors. Framing/labelling issues are considered as well as the use of upsetting or graphic detail. The obligation to report truthfully is weighed alongside the potential damaging effects of coverage. The chapter also reflects on how journalists manage the expectations of the bereaved and the audience in an increasingly competitive and diminished news environment.

When a journalist reports a tragic death they normally base their story on a distillation of an intensive interview where a close family member has expressed raw and intimate thoughts on the loss of their loved one (Duncan, 2012, p. 590). The interview process can be a damaging experience for both the reporter and bereaved relatives but the process of producing and publishing news content has the potential to cause harm as well. The manner in which traumatic stories are expressed – the narrative structure – and the way in which the family’s grief is portrayed – the media frame – therefore, take on a special significance. Chapter Eight examines how stories about individual loss and trauma are told. It starts with a discussion of the elements that define death reporting as a genre: narratives, character types and rhetorical devices and discusses Duncan’s five-narrative model of story structures that reflect different times in the lives of the bereaved. It also explores how well-chosen images of people we do not know can move us and connect us with others’ suffering whilst recognizing the limitations of such coverage: principally a lack of context, one of the key elements of ethical participation.


XII, 224
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (February)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. XII, 224 pp., 1 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Sallyanne Duncan (Author) Jackie Newton (Author)

Sallyanne Duncan is Programme Director of the MLitt Digital Journalism course at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland, and a former journalist. Her research focuses on reporting trauma, suicide and mental health, and bereavement, particularly concerning the individual family. Jackie Newton is Head of Journalism at Liverpool John Moores University and a former print reporter and editor. She is particularly interested in journalists’ relations with the bereaved, associated sensitive interviewing and media representations of victims and families.


Title: Reporting Bad News
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