Reporting on an investigation can be one of the most difficult types of stories a reporter can write.
More often than not, these are emotionally charged proceedings attended by grieving people who desperately need answers.
Sometimes inquests can appear quite clinical due to a coroner’s need to remain impartial and balanced so that he can draw a conclusion from hopelessly sad events.
As painful as these procedures are for those who have lost a loved one, the lessons that can be learned from investigations can go a long way in saving the lives of others.
Families are often surprised – and sometimes angry – when they see a journalist present.
Understandably, they fear that the nature of their loved one’s death will be sensationalized and that a report will tarnish their memories forever.
Responsible and ethical journalists will do what they can to report investigations sensitively, without shying away from the often shocking facts.
It is essential that the public remember that inquiries are a type of judicial inquiry; they are, after all, being held in a coroner’s court.
The press has the legal right to attend investigations and is responsible for reporting on them as part of their duty to uphold the principle of “open justice”.
But in doing so, journalists should follow the advice provided by the Independent press standardization body and set out in the Editors’ Code of Conduct.
It is a journalist’s duty to ensure that the public understands the reasons why someone has died and to ensure that their death is not kept secret.
An investigation report can also shed light on any rumors or suspicions surrounding a person’s death.
Most importantly, an investigation report can draw attention to circumstances that may prevent further deaths.
Investigations are not criminal courts – there is no prosecution or defense – they are investigative tribunals that seek to answer four key questions:
- Who is the deceased?
- Where did they die?
- When did they die?
- How did they die?
They don’t share the blame.
Once these questions are answered, a coroner may record a finding.
The more general lessons that can be learned from an investigation can have far-reaching consequences – but if journalists don’t attend, how can the public be informed?
The harsh reality is that they can’t. Coroners often do not publish the results of an inquest.
If journalists are reluctant to attend investigations, then an entire arm of the justice system – and many others that must answer vital questions – is not held to account.
Surveys can often spark a broader discussion of serious issues, the most recent of which is mental health and suicide.
Editors actively ask and encourage reporters to speak to the family and friends of someone under investigation.
Their contributions help us create a clearer picture of the deceased and also provide an opportunity to pay tribute to their loved one.
Often families do not wish to speak to the press and of course this decision must be respected.
However, as many brilliant campaigns run by newspapers and websites across the country have shown, the contribution of a person’s family and friends can make all the difference in helping save others.
Without the participation of the press in the inquiries, the questions will go unanswered, the debates unchallenged and lives lost.