Tips for reporters on dealing with grief-stricken families

At 2:20 a.m. on Aug. 24, 1997, 20-year-old Catherine Newton stepped onto busy Richmond Street in downtown London, Ont. The bars had closed and she had skipped ahead of her girlfriends, anxious to meet up with her waiting boyfriend, Rob. As she moved through the crosswalk at Pall Mall Street, however, she was struck by a pickup truck driven by a man who would later be convicted of impaired driving and sent to prison. Catherine died in hospital a couple of hours later.

The death of Catherine Newton was one of the most memorable stories during my years as a supervising editor on The London Free Press‘s city desk. It was burnished into memory for two reasons: (1) its powerful symbolism of the hazards and tragedies of impaired driving, and (2) the graciousness with which Catherine’s parents, Al and Pauline Newton, met reporter John Herbert at their door when, a day later, he knocked on it for what in the news business is called a “pickup.” Rather than slam the door, they invited him into the emotionally charged atmosphere of their living room to paint a vivid picture of their deceased daughter.

Catherine Newton died in the early hours of Aug. 24, 1997. For its Aug. 25 editions, The London Free Press managed only a bare-bones brief, using information supplied by police.

The “pickup” is nearly a reporter’s worst nightmare. It means intruding on the private grief of an individual or family to get a story and/or a photograph, which will, in turn, have the effect of making their private grief very public. Social media such as Facebook have changed the nature of this type of newsroom assignment significantly over the past half decade — photos, personal details and lists of acquaintances are often quickly available, and tribute pages have a way of popping up within hours of an unexpected death. But for many reporters, intrusion into the lives of the grief-stricken, usually within hours of life-changing, painful loss, is still a necessary part of building context and assembling a complete story.

I asked Al and Pauline Newton to visit my Journalism Ethics class this week at the University of Western Ontario to offer some suggestions to students in the graduate journalism program on dealing with bereaved individuals and families. Once again, they were gracious in their acceptance.

Al Newton began by chronicling the events of that fateful night: the 2:45 a.m. phone call from police, the anxious trip to the hospital, the pronouncement of his daughter’s death, the panicked phone call from Catherine’s sister Diane in Kingston, Ont., and the arrival of reporter John Herbert at the door of their north London home the following day. Pauline Newton then followed with tips for reporters on doing their jobs amid such overwhelming grief. She and Al both spoke extemporaneously, but the following are her 12 suggestions for journalists assigned this type of story.

1. Don’t ever say, “I know how you feel.” You don’t. Rather, say something such as, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” Similarly, the line, “I’m sorry for your loss,” sounds mechanical and insincere to a freshly bereaved family.

2. Convey that you want to tell the victim’s story; that your hope is to impart personality, meaning and context to a life suddenly ended.

3. Use the victim’s name in conversation, rather than referring bleakly to “your son” or “your daughter.” He or she was, until just recently, a real person with a real name.

4. Ask family members if they would “share” the story of who the victim was, rather than say that you’d like to “interview” the family or “ask questions.” That terminology will sound calculating and aloof.

5. If family members ask to be left alone, respect that. Period.

6. Family members may be sobbing uncontrollably. Those seemingly “in control” of their emotions aren’t — they are simply in shock or denial. Remember that your interview subjects are disoriented and will find it difficult to focus on anything for more than about 30 seconds at a time.

7. Ask open-ended questions about sharing the victim’s story. It will likely differ substantially from the police report’s coldness and sterility.

8. Leave yourself lots of time. Do not rush this process. If you do, the visit will seem mercenary or disingenuous.

9. Ask to see a photo. Personalize the victim in your mind. Ask about its possible publication later, before you leave.

10. Ask permission to use extremely personal details — information that may have been offered in a moment of grief-induced weakness.

11. Expect that the story you get will be disjointed and even somewhat contradictory. Try to get facts and chronology right, even if it means reviewing them repeatedly with the family.

12. If you get a “no” at the door, ask whether there might be another individual — a relative or family friend — who might be able to speak for the family.

The full story, following reporter John Herbert’s interview with the Newton family and supporters in their living room, appeared on the London & Region section front of The London Free Press on Aug. 26, 1997.

8 thoughts on “Tips for reporters on dealing with grief-stricken families

  1. Meredith Levine

    Larry, our mutual UWO colleague, Wendie Crouch, sent this out to all the faculty in the journalism program. I have read a lot of literature on how journalists should approach grief stricken families, but this is the first time the advice has been offered by families who have been directly involved. This is an excellent resource. Thanks for taking the time to write it up.
    Best,
    Meredith Levine

    Reply
    1. Larry Cornies Post author

      Glad you think this is helpful, Meredith. The Newtons have been active in Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) for more than a decade, at both the local and national levels. This opportunity was a first for them, too.

      Reply
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