Dealing with the press dealing with tragedy

IN amongst the horror of the Manchester bomb, Twitter user @DrEm_79 posted a thread about journalism which should make everyone in the media stop and think.

The anonymous poster told of being caught up in a previous terror attack, and then listed the ways that the actions of journalists had made matters worse.

While I don’t recognise the use of some of the most evil tactics described in the post – hacking and deception are illegal – there is a broad point about how to report on tragedy that needs to be addressed.

Of all the people who rush to the scene of an atrocity, paramedics, firefighters, police, everyone is ultimately there to help the victims – with the exception of the media whose priorities are subtly different.

But although the work of reporters and photographers is not directly to aid those at the epicentre of the story there is arguably a bigger picture that makes their work valuable as well.

In the immediate aftermath of an incident, lies, supposition and rumour circulate wildly, the only cure for this is facts, and very simply facts can only come from talking to people directly involved.

For very obvious reasons, especially in the case of photography, this can only be done right there and then.

And surely if we are to confront the challenges that face society and the challenges to being better people that will only be done with knowledge and understanding.

When we talk about learning from history, it is journalists who write the first draft.

Nevertheless the press must be mindful that victims and eyewitnesses do not have media training, they may well be traumatised and they may likely be facing a barrage of contacts from the different elements of the journalistic community.

Dominic Ponsford at the Press Gazette wrote an excellent piece about the ‘death knock’, journalese for the job of approaching the relatives of the recently deceased to ask for comment.

But while this was historically done in person, where the tone and delivery of the request could be caring and sympatheic, it is now often done on social media where that empathy is entirely absent.

For someone dealing with suddenly being at the centre of a breaking story the options for dealing with the scrutiny and requests are limited.

IPSO the press regulator can issue a cease and desist notice or a media agent like the one we run can help but not everyone will know what they want from the press while they are still coming to terms with what has happened.

In my opinion IPSO should offer a wider range of options to those looking to manage press interest.

An entirely reasonable request for a victim of a tragedy might be to confirm some basic details, maybe provide a picture and to set out the conditions on which they would (or would not) consider talking to a reporter.

This would likely dramatically reduce the number of media approaches but this advice or service is not one which IPSO appears to offer.

While the industry has changed and learnt from Leveson it has done little to try to rebuild trust, or at least understanding with the general public.

Those of us who care about journalism must understand the long term survival of our profession depends on credibility – a commodity which we have in short supply.