Peter Steward's Web Site
Media Guidelines: Do They Exist?
3:1 Research Approach
In previous research I have, as already outlined, looked at the Media through the eyes of victims. I have also looked at the police side of matters through the work of the Family Liaison Officers who have very close dealings both with victims and also with the Media. I wanted to complete my triangular look at victims and the Media by looking at the way the Media themselves approach their dealings with victims of crime and in particular with victims of major crime.
The starting point of this part of my research was to find out answers to the following basic questions.
1/ Do the Media have set guidelines for dealing with victims of crime?
2/ If so are these guidelines written or verbal?
3/ Where guidelines exist are they communicated effectively to individual members of staff?
4/ Are the members of staff happy with the guidelines ?
5/ Are the guidelines followed or ignored?
Obviously it would be an impossible task to establish whether every newspaper, radio station and television station in the country has guidelines. Very early on in my research I established that there are no nationally binding guidelines, although there are guidelines put forward by the Press Complaints Commission and other national bodies some of which I will look at. These national guidelines are simply that, however, guidelines.
It is left to each individual outlet to formulate their own guidelines if they feel this is necessary.
I decided, therefore to take a random cross section of local and national outlets. Locally I chose a representative cross section of written media, television and radio with which I have regular and often daily contact.
It was more difficult to chose nationally and I decided that my approaches should be of a random nature. I found it difficult to decide how to do this at first but eventually hit on the idea of taking a four week period and enquire of Media outlets who contacted the Norfolk Press office as a part of their duties.
Many of these questions are factual in nature and I was aware that they would elicit a straight yes or no. The idea was to give myself a basis to look deeper into an individual journalist’s perceptions of any guidelines. Where guidelines did not exist I wanted to find out what controlled the behaviour of individual journalists and what prevented them acting out of control. Where guidelines did exist I wanted to find out whether the journalists adhere to them. I was also aware of the possibility that where guidelines do exist they are only written in some dusty tome that never see the light of day.
I also wanted to establish whether it is possible for a journalist to work by their own individual standards and morals or are these overpowered by the necessity of deadlines, space and the demands of editors. This involved longer interviews to find out journalists’ feelings about approaching victims.
On numerous occasions I have had journalists tell me that they need information immediately as they are ‘right on deadline.’ This of course could be a ploy aimed at getting information from me as fast as possible, but as a former journalist I know it is all too often because the reporter is trying to meet the demands of his or her newsdesk.
It could be argued that meeting deadlines or filling space is more
important than the story itself. A journalist is not allowed to give a
story what it is worth because the strictures of space are the deciding
factor. I have already illustrated this with comments about the shifting
emphasis put on stories as they break and take the place of existing ones.
3:2 Perceptions of the Official Guidelines
My research in this section of my dissertation began by trying to establish whether specific guidelines exist. I was surprised to find this was not an easy question to answer and it became a rather woolly area. It surprised me that there seemed to be confusion over what should be a basic area in instructing journalism on how to deal with people.
I would argue that young journalists just starting out in the profession need clear guidelines on how to deal with interviewing people in the deepest depths of sorrow. Professionalism can never be enough. One victim previously interviewed had summed this up.
Most of the Media have been excellent although some of the young reporters have been too aggressive and too brash. I put this down to their youth and inexperience and a lack of instruction on how to interview people. The attitude of one or two of them certainly ensured that they didn’t get the best out of me. The more experienced journalists seemed to be much more understanding and I was certainly happier dealing with them.
This immediately got my hackles up. Was the young reporter’s attitude due to a lack in guidelines?
Any guidelines followed by the Media have to take Victims as a corporate whole. When a journalist knocks on the door of a victim’s property they never know how they will be received. As a former journalist I can certainly confirm this from my own experiences.
In the vast majority of cases I was accepted and at times even welcomed into the world of the grieving. It was only in a handful of cases that I was refused an interview and I was only physically threatened once. This was by a farmer whose son had been found dead following a drugs overdose. On this occasion I was threatened with a shotgun and needless to say beat a hasty retreat.
That incident - which occurred over 20 years ago - is still vivid. The vividness comes not only from the actual physical threat but from the re-action of the newsdesk when I contacted them from a local telephone kiosk to inform them of what had happened.
I became immediately aware of the power of the story over people’s feelings when I was told to “have a word with neighbours to see what they have to say.” At that point I decided that discretion was the better part of valour and left the area.
It is only 20 years later and following 10 years of dealing with victims that I have begun to ask questions about the morality of journalists dealing with victims of crime. Certainly the press agency I worked for at the time had no guidelines for dealing with victims. I was left to my own devices and, in order to cover my own back, would probably have been prepared to resort to underhanded methods in order to capture a story and keep the newsdesk 'off my back.'
I subsequently went on to become editor of a small weekly paper. Again they had no guidelines for dealing with victims of crime. With the knowledge of hindsight I possibly should have been aware of this situation and constructed some.
In my 17 years as a journalist I was only aware of one organisation having written guidelines for dealing with victims. Certainly in nine months at journalism college in the early 1970s guidelines were never mentioned. There we were taught quite simply that obtaining of the story overcame all other considerations.
My experiences both as a journalist and as a police Press Officer have, however, taught me never to second guess how a person will react to the Media. Today I never anticipate the re-action of a victim on the question of whether they wish to co-operate with the Media. I take each case on its own merits.
I must emphasise again at this point, however, that the majority of victims I have come across and been involved with have co-operated in some way with the Media or certainly some sections of it.
I hope in the previous section that I have been able to explain something of the pressure and the power of the Media much of which has come from my own experience. I hope I have also firmly established that in a high-profile murder or other crime that the victims can expect tremendous Media interest. There is no way that it can be avoided.
Having established that I now move on to the next part of this research
which is to look at the way the Media see their treatment of victims and
whether set guidelines are established and if so whether these are
3:3 The Actual Behaviour of the Media
There are certainly numerous occasions when I have found myself struggling to come to terms with the actions and views of individual journalists who seem to feel that they should have information in the form they require it and with a mediacy which is not always practical or possible.
This produces a dilemma for me. As a caring human being I find the attitude of some journalists towards victims distasteful and upsetting. They have relegated the victim from a person to the object of their story.
I had an example of this when a journalist demanded to know the identity of a woman killed in a car accident. The woman had two young children in the car with her at the time and these survived. We were asked by the family of the dead person not to release her name and address.
Our police policy is quite clear on this matter and states:
Death is a matter of public record and in sudden death, criminal offences or fatal road traffic collisions, the name, age address and occupation of the deceased may be released after the body has been positively identified and the next-of-kin informed. Relatives who request no publicity will be told that such information will become public at any inquest, but specific requests to withhold personal details will be honoured.
According to our policy the only other reasons for details not being given to the Media are:
In exceptional circumstances where the officer in charge considers that identification of an individual or property could be harmful or
There would have to be extremely good reasons for the above two points to be brought into effect.
I do, however, stand by the right of relatives to request no publicity. This part of the policy protects victims and gives them the option of refusing to be featured in the Media. As far as I am concerned they have a right to privacy.
In the above specific case I informed the journalist of the reason for not releasing the name and address. I explained to them that when requested not to do so we did not release names and addresses. Although this was a policy accepted by their editor the aggression of his/her response surprised me.
You know if you don’t give me the address we will still take every step possible to find it out and that means contacting other people.
This was a threat as far as I was concerned and showed the unacceptable side of journalism. To my mind it was a reflection on the way this individual journalist dealt with victims whereby their story took on much more importance than the tragedy. Certainly they were not commenting on any policy from their organisation as a more senior journalist accepted.
If the police told us that they had been requested not to give names and addresses we would abide by this and accept it.
The caveat to this is that the name and address would both come out at any subsequent inquest which would be open to the Press and at which they would be perfectly at liberty to divulge. In this way our policy could only be seen as a holding one.
The threat doesn’t change my attitude towards giving the names etc. I respond by firmly refusing to and explaining that if they get the details from other sources that is a matter for them.
A senior police officer also had a bad experience of one young journalist which coloured his dealings with the Media for many years:
I was anti-Press for some considerable time because one night I was contacted by a very pushy young reporter who wanted the personal details of somebody killed in a road accident. I wouldn’t give them the number in the road that the dead person lived and this was in line with our policy. He/she told me that they would, if necessary, knock on every door in the road until they found the family of the victim. I pointed out the pressure this would put on friends and neighbours but he/she didn’t seem interested in that. That one incident ruined any trust I had built up with the Media.
This underlined comments made earlier to me that the Media suffer from the excesses of the worst of its practitioners. Here was a young reporter determined to track down their prey irrespective of any stress they might bring. I would question whether this reporter was aware of the possible damaging consequences of their action and also whether they had ever been given guidelines on how to deal with victims.
So do journalists have any awareness of the guidelines that exist? This question had some journalists confused:
It all tends to be rather ad hoc. I don’t remember seeing any guidelines written down.
We have a style book, but I don’t think there’s any mention about victims of crime.
I believe we follow the guidelines of the Press Complaints Commission, much of it is common sense.
Others admitted openly that there were no written guidelines for them to work to. Some felt that they had to work to some guidelines and so had looked out for some.
I really think we should have guidelines, but none exist. As a member of the National Union of Journalists I would always abide by their code of conduct.
Another was very definite about his/her knowledge of the guidelines that existed in his/her organisation.
We have very strict guidelines. I have a copy and am very aware of its contents.
I asked the same question of a number of other reporters and again received an across the board reply. This led me to believe that there are numerous differences and Media outlets can adhere to any of the following:
1/ Media outlets which have strict written down guidelines which are well conveyed to their reporters who are aware of their contents.
2/ Media outlets which have guidelines which may or may not be conveyed successfully to their staff.
3/ Media outlets where there are no written guidelines, possibly because of the lack of forethought.
4/ Media outlets where there are deliberately no guidelines as these
would hamper the perceived effectiveness of journalists.
3:4 Different Levels of Engagement With the Guidelines
Victim Support (n.d) are quite harsh in this area, even where they believe guidelines exist.
Although the codes of practice relating to both print and broadcast media warn journalists about approaching people in shock, some will take advantage of the bereaved person’s emotional state to conduct an interview.
This leads me to think deeply about the situation. It is apparent to me that the Media is so diverse that it is extremely unlikely that there will ever be national guidelines binding on all outlets. The only way this could come about is through national government intervention and journalists would argue that this would be contrary to the whole concept of Freedom of the Press. So whether to have guidelines becomes a personal matter for each individual organisation.
I have not discussed the size of the organisations I contacted but I have analysed the answers and the overriding information suggests that the larger well established Media outlets either have some form of guidelines or follow an external code whilst the smaller more independent outlets seem to leave reporters to almost “make it up as they go along.”
These thoughts are borne out by my own experiences. As a journalist I worked for a large provincial newspaper, a news agency and a small independent weekly newspaper. Of these the large provincial had guidelines but the other two didn’t. I firmly believe that their lack of guidelines was due in one case to the cut-throat nature of the organisation where the obtaining of a story overcame any other considerations and in the other to the fact that the paper was so small that nobody had ever considered the situation.
Certainly as a young reporter I never questioned the lack of guidelines and I am sure that young inexperienced reporters today are the same.
I believe that those working for organisations with guidelines will behave in a much more respectful way towards victims of crime to those working for organisations without guidelines.
Where guidelines exist, journalists will have some yardstick by which to gauge their own behaviour and the behaviour of their colleagues. Where no guidelines exist there are no such gauges and I firmly believe that this leads to some of the excessive behaviour of certain areas of the Media who could be accused of acting like “loose canons.”
I found the language used in these quotes to be very interesting. ‘I don’t remember seeing,’ ‘I believe,’ and ‘I don’t think there is’ all suggest that many journalists have never bothered to find out whether guidelines exist. They have never questioned their existence or been concerned about the lack of guidelines. It is as if my question brought it to their minds for the first time.
This to me was worrying. These were experienced journalists who seem to have learnt from experience. The final quote suggests it is all down to common sense. But can we be sure that raw journalists new to the job and needing guidance are imbued with “common sense?”
I interviewed a number of reporters from one particular organisation, however, where strict guidelines do exist. One reporter told me:
The document has a specific section on ‘Victims of Crime’ and describes the care reporters must take when dealing with this sensitive area. There are also sections on Doorstepping and Sensationalism which may be relevant. I am aware of all these.
I found it interesting to note that all the members of this organisation I contacted were aware of the guidelines and have personal copies rather suggesting that their organisation had thought hard and long about the situation.
This was backed up by a senior member of their editorial staff:
We certainly do have very strict guidelines and would be concerned if any of our journalists stepped beyond them.
I feel it is appropriate here to look at the guidelines:
It is part of our job to approach people in the news. They may be grieving, having lost a loved one, or they may be overjoyed at receiving an honour or furious that some indiscretion has come to light. Our approach is the same in all cases, polite, courteous and tactful. Intimidation or harassment play no part in our lines of inquiry.
I find it extremely interesting that they should talk about a grieving person in the same context as somebody who is overjoyed. As a journalist I know which situation I would be happier promoting.
The next part of the policy underlined what I have established in previous research:
People do like talking about themselves, giving their side of the story, and also speaking about their loved ones who may have died in an accident...... These interviews help to give balance, background and the human touch.
But if the person refuses to talk the guidelines are equally clear.
We do not harass people for an interview. We are firm in making our request. If we are refused an interview we withdraw.
But, again interestingly, this is not the end of the matter.
It is then up to us to find another way of finding out the facts we are seeking from other sources associated with people concerned in the story.
In other words they will not be denied, they will not go away and this fits in perfectly with my experience of the Media. Here is the very essence of the power of the Media - the fact that they will always get their story, they will never give up.
The guidelines go on to tell journalists that they must at all times avoid sensationalism and the use of over emotive words.
So the essence is that some organisations have written guidelines and others don’t. So there are arguably no national or even local criteria here and this means that the whole system is open to abuse.
A number of national bodies have put together their own guidelines. One of these is the Press Complaints Commission (1997) which states:
Intrusions and enquiries into an individual’s private life without his or her consent, including the use of long lens photography to take pictures of people on private property without their consent are only acceptable when it can be shown that these are, or are reasonably believed to be in the public interest.
The PCC defines private property as (i) any private residence. Together with its gardens and outbuildings but excluding any adjacent fields or parkland and the surrounding parts of the property within the unaided view of passers-by (ii) hotel bedrooms (iii) parts of a hospital or nursing home where patients are treated or accommodated.
Here we have a dilemma. Quite clearly this guideline was contravened where one of my victims spoke about cameras prying through windows. Here was at least one Media outlet transgressing PCC guidelines. I must assume that many others would follow suit.
The PCC goes on to say that Journalists should neither obtain nor seek to obtain information or pictures through intimidation or harassment.
Journalists should not persist in telephoning or questioning individuals after having been asked to desist; should not remain on their property after having been asked to leave and should not follow them.
In my experience I know of a situation where a reporter was threatened with arrest when he/she refused to move away from a private property despite being asked to do so by the victims who had no wish to speak to him/her.
The PCC goes on to say:
In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries should be carried out and approaches made with sympathy and discretion.
The body defines the public interest as:
1/ detecting or exposing crime or a serious misdemeanour
2/ protecting public health and safety
3/ Preventing the public from being misled by some statement or action of an individual or organisation.
These guidelines have been framed by the newspaper and periodical industry A similar set of guidelines is followed by the Newspaper and Magazine Publishers code of practice. But of course none of this is binding on individual Media outlets.
Having established that there are organisations that have set
guidelines and others that have either none or very few, I wanted to find
out how seriously individuals take their responsibility towards victims.
3:5 Individual Responses
I asked a number how they approached victims and what their feelings were about doing so:
One suggested it was something of a mechanical situation decided by outside influences:
How I approach a victim will depend on a number of factors affecting timescale and the ease of access to the victim. A telephone call can often be the best approach.
Another felt that a personal call was the way to approach the situation.
I would always make the effort to make a personal call, although this always depends on the time constraints. It is much easier once eye contact has been established. Victims or families of deceased do like being treated like human beings, not lepers.
Another reporter was even stronger and insisted on the personal approach:
Always by personal visit, because a phone call is sudden, impersonal and inappropriate.
Another reporter seemed to take the easy option in leaving the arrangements to a third party (in this case the Police). I have to find that acceptable because it basically is just what my job is about.
Nearly all approaches were made through the Police initially, others were with victims known to be approachable. Therefore I had no hesitation in approaching them.
And this suggestion came up on a number of occasions:
We would always approach families of people who have been killed through a third party (e.g the police).
It could be argued that this reporter was providing the acceptable face of journalism - happy to contact victims either through the Police or ones that (s)he knew would be approachable. When pushed a little further the reporter admitted that (s)he could be pushed into approaching victims they knew would not want publicity.
I hope I would never be forced into the situation where I felt I couldn’t approach a victim. I believe in that case that my editors wouldn’t expect me to. However, at the end of the day if I was told to approach someone I would have to do it as it is my job.
Here the consideration of the person’s job and future obviously overrides their moral dilemma.
No reporters, however, admitted acting in an unreasonable or over-zealous way, suggesting that they become the style of the organisation that they are representing. Fellow journalists may be critical of the excesses of the tabloids, but those tabloid journalists do not agree that they are being excessive or over-stepping the mark - they are simply operating within the unwritten rules of their own organisations.
This role justification was underlined by one national reporter who told me.
Nothing will prevent us from obtaining the information we require. We will try to do this in an understanding and reasonable way but we will simply stay around until we have the information we need.
The implications of this view are obvious. The story is the reason d’ętre and the feelings of the victims come a distant second.
So already we have a difference in the style of approach and that of course is not covered by any guidelines.
As far as the feelings about the approach is concerned many journalists are wary of this part of their work which gives a lie to the general public feeling that Media people are uncaring.
The timing and style of approach is crucial. There may be good reasons why “Victims” may feel they should co-operate with the Media. On the other hand Media approaches may be regarded as intrusion. Each case needs to be handled on its individual merits.
Another agreed but saw no way around avoiding the situation.
Approaching victims is an inevitable part of a journalist’s job. I’ve been in the business for nearly 30 years and I’m thankful that I still have a profound sense of apprehension about each approach, which is by definition an intrusion into privacy and grief. I would like to think that I try (impossibly) to put myself in the victim’s position and to offer the sensitivity and tenderness which I would expect.
A third mentioned the plus side
I am extremely wary about an approach but also mindful that I have a job to do and the paper can actually help.
By adopting these tactics the reporters have found the response to them has been good as the comments from the following three reporters illustrate:
I can’t recall any occasion where I have felt threatened.
Essentially the journalists find themselves becoming caught up in the situation:
These interviews are never easy. My usual reaction is overwhelming sympathy. Victims are almost always innocent - we could each of us be a victim at any time.
Another reporter admits that (s)he is left feeling drained by any contact.
At the end I invariably feel drained. Interviewing people in the depths of grief or suffering should always be an empathetic experiences. If it isn’t it’s time to get out of journalism in my view.
This was echoed by the following:
After interviewing victims I often feel humble, even upset and always sympathetic.
Others again found the victims approachable:
As all have been willing to speak to me, mainly to help police catch the criminal responsible, nearly all victims are approachable with care.
Many of the journalists I interviewed were more than aware of the excesses of their trade, although none owned up to taking part in these ‘excesses.’
National newspapers often adopt a ruthless and uncompromising approach which can verge on the terrifying. Regional newspapers tread a great deal more carefully.
This was an honest opinion and not one borne out of self-righteousness. Another reporter agreed:
Victims are treated disgracefully by some sections of the Media. The culture of ‘the worse the crime, the better the story’ abounds and it’s getting worse. The irony is of course that sensitivity and understanding shown to victims usually results in the best interviews anyway. So why some journalists adopt the foot in the door technique eludes me.
Throughout my interviews there were overriding thoughts about the differences between the local and national Media. I have found this to be true in my job. Local reporters build up a relationship with the police press office and have daily contact with us. They know that they cannot afford to let us down. The national reporters, however hone in on a story, obtain what they want and then often disappear never to have to contact us again.
This was outlined by the following local reporter, proving that the locals both dislike their national counterparts and see them as a very different animal despite working in the same profession.
I think many victims are treated with respect. However in major cases where the National Media are involved some victims get a raw deal and can be hounded... Locally I feel we all have a great deal of respect for victims, and will always respect privacy. National colleagues are a different animal and very few have any respect for victims.
Virtually every local reporter I contacted had the same feelings about the nationals and put his/her views very strongly:
At local level I think victims are treated fine by the Media. At national level and by the national Media when they come into the area victims can be treated so badly that I feel ashamed of the profession.
Another highlighted this need to treat victims with respect.
In my experience I often find that a more sensitive approach bears fruit.
Of course victims such as Irene Ivison faced with a garden full of reporters cannot differentiate between those to be trusted and those just in it for the story. Unless such victims have come across local reporters previously, all journalists become part of what Irene describes as ‘the hordes.’
Perhaps the strongest words against the nationals came from one reporter who said that he wouldn’t work for a Media organisation which
By its approach, actions or poor judgement, deliberately added to the personal trauma or burden of a victim.
So reporters are often self regulating on themselves. They find their niche in their particular trade according to their own beliefs and the standards and guidelines of the outlets for which they work. Many also consider deeply the way that they deal with victims.
One spoke in general terms:
Journalists think constantly about how they deal with people.
I would (a) use my best endeavours to explain to my editor why there were compelling moral reasons for not making an approach and (b) if that failed (which I hope it wouldn’t) refuse to make the approach anyway. If I really felt it was crucial I’d put my job on the line for it.
Two others even suggested they would be prepared to go against the demands of his/her news editor to maintain his own beliefs.
It depends what the newsdesk wanted, although if I was totally against going I wouldn’t.
And it becomes evident that a number of reporters get close to victims and are affected by what they learn. This dispels the suggestion that the Media are only in it for the story syndrome:
Wherever appropriate I try to maintain a personal relationship with victims when the professional relationship is over, maybe by sending a card to mark an anniversary or by an occasional visit if I’m passing.
Another reporter has made personal friends through tragedies:
At least two victims in recent years have become personal friends whom I would never have met if it hadn’t been for my job. I try to use my experience of meeting victims to encourage trainee reporters to put sensitivity before all else.
This was echoed by the following:
I struck up a marvellous friendship which lasted until I left the area. The family needed support and a voice to air their frustrations. I believe that taking the time to help victims pays off.
Another theme to come from my interviews was the strong belief on the part of reporters that both they and the victims are all part of the same community and after the Media coverage has died down they have to work in that community and the victims have to live in it.
We live and work in the local communities and are part of those communities. We are also human and can therefore understand the hurt and anguish victims feel.
Cases involving children had a particular affect on another reporter:
Any crime that has resulted in children being the victims upset me and where that has happened and where I have spoken to parents and family it always leaves a mark.
So a caring attitude seemed to be an overriding consideration, even where reporters realised that a certain amount of detachment was necessary in order to remain professional.
While all victims make you feel for them, as someone who is not involved, it is vital to detach yourself from the victim and the crime in order to give a totally unbiased account.
Another agreed with this view:
Whilst all contacts with victims leave some impression I feel you have to detach yourself and not get closely involved.
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