Ombudsman: Steering a path between accuracy and sensitivity

UCS deputy provost RICHARD LISTER gives an independent view of complaints made to, and investigated by, the Ipswich Star’s editorial department.

ONE of the roles of the Ipswich Star ombudsman is to try and steer a path between the need to report accurately and fairly on one hand and on the other I need to be sensitive to the very genuine reactions of readers with an understanding to their troubles and tragedies.

It is the business of the newspaper to be lively and topical in order to sell copies and to thrive while being careful not to overstep the boundaries of intrusion where the news intersects with the private life of an individual.

It is a fine balance and I am impressed by the instinctive way the editorial staff and journalists understand where to draw the line. These thoughts came about as a result of a very sad and passionate letter from a reader whose partner had been killed in a road accident in Suffolk.

At the time, the reader was not unhappy with the coverage but later, following another fatal accident close to the scene, pictures of the partner’s accident were reprinted to illustrate the story of there being more than one fatality in the area.

The complaint is that relatives should be informed in advance if distressing pictures are to be re-used at a later time. The editor’s code of practice says “in cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively”. It seems that the report of the initial accident was handled sensitively, so the question is around the appropriateness of reprinting the pictures to illustrate another story.

That second story questioned, after the second fatality, whether there was an inherent danger in that stretch of road.

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I do think that it would be impractical, as the complainant suggests, to contact loved ones every time there is use of a particular picture.

It might be desirable and compassionate but the practicalities, for example, which relatives or partners and for how long would the requirement last? What if a picture was urgently needed for a genuine, legitimate reason and no one was available?

As an absolute requirement it would be impossible to achieve and make the business of reporting quickly very difficult.

Nonetheless, I think all newspapers, especially local papers, should reflect on the sensitive use of pictures.

The complainant is absolutely right to point out that shocking pictures such as these relate to a local person, a reader or the loved one of a reader, and the grief of a family, a street, a community and whether such pictures are necessary at all?

Certainly, at all times care should be taken that distressing accident scenes are used sparingly and images must not be too graphic.

Perhaps when the image illustrates the initial news story, if sensitively handled, with appropriate tributes, these stories can be supportive memorials which can be helpful over a period of time. However, while I cannot agree with the complainant that there is a right to be told in advance if images are reused, I do wonder if the Star might reflect whether the use of the pictures the second time around added anything to the story, especially as the two accidents were quite different in nature.

I think that images of accidents and tragedy should be used sparingly. It is the business of a local paper to report but not to shock and the Ipswich Star walks this difficult line carefully.

If, as a newspaper at the heart of the community, it were to become even more cautious in its use of graphic, shocking images I would be very comfortable with that decision.

On another matter relating to the reporting of tragic events, the Samaritans contacted me to raise the issue of the level of detail in the reporting of suicide cases. Too much detail may lead to “copycat” attempts and the Samaritans are concerned that reports should not be detailed about methods of suicide. I agree, and this newspaper does too, and it has reminded its reporters and editors of the guidelines in these cases.

Finally, and on a different matter altogether, there were a number of complaints about an article apparently suggesting that Molly, a lonely crossbreed dog, was seeking a mate on Valentine’s Day as the owner who had previously agreed to mate their dog with her had withdrawn the offer.

The complaint was that the Ipswich Star was promoting irresponsible breeding of “designer” crossbreed dogs.

I understand completely the need not to encourage more crossbred dogs while there are many waiting in rescue centres which are unlikely to find new owners.

However, while the Star might have reminded readers that rescue dogs are a better option, I think given the Valentine’s Day slant on the story it was clearly meant light- heartedly and would not have been run at another time of the year.

It could not therefore, be a case of promoting or encouraging a particular action. But readers, if you want a dog, think rescue centres first – you might find your perfect companion and save them from a sad fate.