The Independent Press Standards Organisation (“IPSO”) published new guidance on how journalists should report major incidents, including natural disasters and terror attacks. The guidance is drawn from the Editors’ Code of Practice (“the Code”) and provides some examples of relevant decisions by IPSO’s Complaints Committee.
A number of clauses in the Code are relevant to the issue of reporting major incidents. These include Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment), Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock), Clause 6 (Children), and Clause 8 (Hospitals). The Code makes clear that the press must distinguish in their coverage between comment, conjecture and fact.
Striking the balance
The guidance notes that these major events can be traumatic for those involved. Thus, journalists must take into account the potential impact of any intrusion on the individual, in particular taking steps to handle it with sympathy and sensitivity. The sheer scale of the coverage and number of media organisations reporting on these events can lead to some people feeling overwhelmed by that contact. This must be counterbalanced by the strong public interest in reporting these types of incidents: reporting must be done quickly to show the devastating effects of the incident. Effective coverage can only be provided by speaking to those affected.
Reporting breaking news
When reporting breaking news, journalists must act quickly despite sometimes being presented with conflicting and incomplete information. The guidance notes whilst photographs/footage from the incident can be powerful in showing the scale of damage, they must still comply with the Code. Extra care must be taken when depicting anyone who is injured, in shock or dead. In particular, if a journalist is identifying an individual who has died, it is important to check whether the family knows of the death prior to the news coming out.
The immediate aftermath of an incident
Clause 4 of the Code requires journalists to make approaches to people experiencing grief or shock with sympathy and discretion, taking into account the fact that individuals may be in shock and unable to answer questions about their experience. Clause 3 of the Code states that journalists must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist, unless there is a strong public interest in continuing to do so.
The guidance also notes that whilst the fact of someone’s death is not private per se, it should still be approached with sensitivity since the family may find any questions intrusive. Social media can be a valuable source of information about major incidents, particularly as those incidents are unfolding. However, information may be misleading and difficult to verify. Journalists should be wary of sources on social media carrying this information and should verify the source of information before publishing.
The guidance gives a number of examples to illustrate how extra care must be taken when reporting on major incidents. For example, in Various v Mail Online, the Mail Online published an article including a tweet in relation to the possible terror attack at Oxford Circus which stated that a lorry had been involved in the incident and was surrounded by the police. In fact, this tweet was from some days before the incident, and the Mail Online had failed to check the time stamp of the tweet before publishing. The lesson being that journalists should check the source of the information, including when it was published.
Another related example was that Express.co.uk, covering the same incident, had reported that a gunman was running amok on Oxford Street. Whilst there were claims that gunshots had been heard at the scene, this was not in fact correct. The key point from this example is that care should be taken to distinguish between claims and fact when reporting on major incidents.
The guidance frequently states that journalists must not act in a certain way unless it is in the ‘public interest’ to do so. For example, under Hospitals it states “As set out in Clause 8 of the Code, journalists must not enter non-public areas of a hospital without permission from a responsible executive at the hospital, unless it is in the public interest in doing so”. Yet, it is unclear when it may be in the public interest to go against the general rule. This will inevitably be assessed on a case-by-case basis, though care must be taken that journalists do not rely too heavily on the ‘public interest’ defence to defend their reporting if it is quite clearly contravening the general rule stated in the guidance or the Editor’s Code.