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 are desperate for 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 memory forever.
Responsible and ethical journalists will do what they can to report investigations sensitively, while not shrinking from the often shocking facts.
It is essential that the public remember that inquiries are a kind of judicial inquiry; they are, after all, being held in a coroner’s court.
The press has the legal right to attend and report on investigations as part of its duty to uphold the principle of “open justice”.
But in doing so, journalists should follow the guidelines provided by the Independent Press Standards Organization and set out in the Editors’ Code of Conduct.
It is a journalist’s duty to ensure that the public understands the reasons why a person died and to ensure that their death is not kept secret.
An investigation report can also dispel rumors or suspicions surrounding a person’s death.
Most importantly, an investigative report can draw attention to circumstances that may prevent further deaths from occurring.
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 assign blame.
Once these questions have been answered, a coroner will be able to record a finding.
The broader lessons that can be learned from an investigation can have far-reaching consequences – but if journalists don’t attend, how can the public be made aware?
The harsh reality is that they can’t. Coroners often do not publish the results of an inquest.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 – are not held accountable.
Investigations can often spark a broader discussion of serious issues, the most recent of which are mental health and suicide.
Editors actively ask and encourage reporters to speak to 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 presence of the press at the inquiries, the questions will remain unanswered, the debates without argument and lives lost.