Death in the modern age

I’ve had to make A Ruling this morning.

As I said in the last blog, a man I know was killed in a car crash on Sunday night.

Deaths are always a dilemma.

On one hand, if a relative of mine was killed or died suddenly, it’s possible the last think I’d want is some reporter coming round knocking on the door for a story.

On the other hand, it can be cathartic talking to a reporter, talking to anyone: it’s surprising how often you hear of people crossing the road to avoid speaking to a bereaved person, and a reporter coming round and allowing you to talk about your loved one may well be a help.

A sympathetic write-up in the local paper with tributes about your loved  one is good, and saves you telling lots of people. In fact, when my father died, I had to write an obit for the Chronicle and then several more, for trade papers and others. It does help.

On the third hand (yes really, we have three in journalism) there’s the fact that people expect us to report tragedies. They want to know what happened, and want the facts as opposed to the rumour. (Or at least they want the facts up until the moment it’s a death in their family, in which cases we’re bottom feeding scum feeding off other people’s misery).

On balance while we sympathise with bereaved families, and try not to cold call them, we do have to report the story and in this modern world, Facebook and Twitter are good sources of information. People set up tribute pages, and express sympathies on people’s Facebook walls, giving us (and other newspapers) lots of free information that was not previously available.

What in the past might have been privately expressed sentiments are now made public, though clearly many of those supportive and comforting comments would not have been said in the first place in pre-Facebook days – it’s much easier to express emotion on a Facebook wall than it is face to face.

For years the media have slyly appealed for information: “Worried relatives looking for information can call our newsdesk” is a subtle way of gathering news masquerading as a public service I’ve heard more than once on local radio.

But this is much harder to do over Twitter. Twice in recent weeks reporters have appealed for information / witnesses to fatal accidents when there’s little public interest. There’s a clear difference between a smash on the M6 that causes traffic chaos for hours, and a fatal smash involving one or two cars late at night. “Are you affected by the traffic jams?” has some public benefit – telling people which roads to avoid – that “Did you see the fatal accident last night?” does not.

So from today I’ve banned bald appeals for information that are basically fishing for good comments.

It’s worth pointing out that newspapers reporting fatal accidents is not new, and in the past we were much more graphic in detail. I remember reading a case about a man killed in  railway accident in the 1910s and the newspaper reported how he ran around the shunting yard screaming as blood pumped out of the hole where his arm used to be. Can you imagine anyone reporting in that way today?

Our splendid 1912 edition (still on sale, a bargain at £2.50) carries a report on the death of a small child, who pulled a heavy weight onto her head. The result was “a dreadful sight” with her brains all over the heath rug. We’d be rightly pilloried for that one today.

Back in 1912 though, they were much more prurient about sex, and paternity cases – where a woman sued a man for child maintenance – merely referred to the couple taking a walk, or walking off together and talking, walks that nine months later often involved the woman contacting the chap to see what he could do about her plight.

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