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SPJ Ethics Committee Position Papers
Reporting on Grief, Tragedy and Victims

A city truck collides with a motorcycle, killing the cyclist immediately and tying up traffic for a half hour. The local newspaper’s photographer, by happenstance, is at the scene minutes afterward.

A man holds two individuals hostage. Police surround the house in the standoff for nearly two hours before the man takes his life. A reporter/photographer is at the scene.

What do these incidents have in common? They are being talked about in the community. They have an impact on people. They are sensitive issues that deal with grief and victims. They are the type of stories that should be reported as a living history of communities.

The overriding point, however, is that journalists must be responsible both in how they gather and present the information in words and photos. Stories involving grief and victims go to the heart of one of the tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics: Minimize harm.

Journalists often advance their “right” to seek information and record events, and stories of grief and tragedy are a staple of community news. The SPJ Code underscores the accompanying “responsibility” with common-sense principles:

— Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.

— Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.

— Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort.

— Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials.

— Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.

It’s certainly within journalists’ purview — some may even argue obligation — to report news of tragedy and grief. Citizens expect to see these stories, especially if the circumstances have an impact on neighborhoods and community.

Journalists also should heed the SPJ Code of Ethics. Scrutinize the guidelines, and a common theme emerges. Most important, journalists have a responsibility to report these stories in a careful — not careless — fashion. At the foundation, journalists should be aware that these stories often thrust individuals into a “public setting” for the first time, and maybe the only time, in their lives. The individuals also are often full of emotion. They are typically unprepared for interrogation by law enforcement authorities, who are often at the scene, let alone quizzing by journalists who come armed with notebooks, microphones and cameras.

The sensitivity in approaching these stories applies to gathering as well as reporting the information. There’s a delicate balance between being assertive and aggressive. In truth, journalists are likely to get a more complete — and meaningful — story if they approach victims with sensitivity.

Journalists also should recognize that news of grief and tragedy circulates quickly. The news will draw attention no matter the presentation. In other words, media will receive higher marks if they present the stories in responsible fashion without resorting to sensationalism in words or photos.

Don’t misinterpret. The SPJ Code of Ethics does not suggest journalists avoid reporting on grief and victims. Such occurrences are a fact of life. The code, however, does underscore that these stories be pursued in a responsible and professional manner. Adopting that approach will prove long-term dividends for everyone involved.

This statement expresses the views of the SPJ Ethics Committee. It was written for the Committee by Jim Pumarlo, Director of Communications for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. He spent 27 years working at small daily newspapers in International Falls and Red Wing, Minn., and is an Ethics Committee member.

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