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Framing death - how journalists report the death of public figures

RISJ Admin

Contributing Author

Jarkko Jokelainen writes:"In every journalist's guidelines there should be a line that says never do anything in your journalism that will knowingly and unnecessarily cause pain or offence to the loved ones of somebody who has died", states Keith Somerville in his presentation on how to report the death of public figures.
That is, naturally, a key issue when reporting death. The journalists should stand back and have sensitivity towards the family and the close friends in the time of their sorrow. Even the audience can be offended by the news. Criticism is often regarded distasteful in obituaries.
However, it is not always that simple.
"Now that comes difficult when you are dealing with someone like Gaddafi, Hussein or Bin Laden", says Somerville with reference to a couple of extreme examples. "But you still have to maintain your impartiality."
There are a few questions a journalist should keep in mind. When is it suitable to get into more controversial topics? How soon is it appropriate to get into what happens next?
There are no direct answers but Somerville offers a few guidelines:  one should keep in mind who is the audience and how is death viewed in that society.  In the case of many public figures the death will have major consequences and has to be treated accordingly.
"In a matter of hours you get into succession and more controversial topics", says Somerville. "But not in the first hour or two hours."
Another key element is the known reputation of the person. For instance many people in entertainment have lived life in a "less regulated way".
"Then you have more licence. The news of Amy Winehouse's death got pretty quickly into her almost self-destructive lifestyle." 
Keith Somerville also remarked that every news organisation should prepare for the death of important public figures.
"Have obituaries, soundbites, interviews and stills ready. And remember to update the obituaries."
And most importantly: don't jump the gun and report someone's death before it happens.