Don’t Release Names Until The Families Have Been Notified?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on December 10, 2012 – 6:02 AM

I will never forget where I was on the late afternoon of July 24, 1998.

I was standing in the newsroom of ABC’s Nightline when a call came over our internal speaker system from the network’s Hill producer: two Capitol Hill police officers had been shot while on duty. The producer continued to update us for the next several minutes until she delivered this awful report:

“I can confirm that Detective John Gibson and Officer Joseph Chestnut were killed in this afternoon’s shooting. The families have not yet been notified. Do not report this news until I confirm that the families have been notified.”

 

The other networks were also running live coverage of the shooting. I watched the monitors nervously, convinced that one of the other networks would run the breaking news in order to be first, despite the fact that the families hadn’t been notified.

They didn’t. Every news outlet waited for the families to be notified before breaking the news. The embargo held. And I get goose bumps every time I think about the honor among news organizations that day.

It’s not just news organizations that have traditionally honored the “wait until families are notified” rule. Imagine you’re a plant manager and that an industrial accident just claimed the lives of three of your workers. Even if you know the names of the employees, crisis communications best practices advise you to notify the families before releasing the names to help spare them the additional agony of learning about the death of their loved one through a television report.

But that Capitol Hill shooting, which took place 14 years ago, predated social media and the proliferation of blogs. So when I saw this tweet in my stream last week, it made me pause:

In age of social media, people often share news about tragedies and crises long before the media do. So here’s a question: If a company can’t reach the deceased person’s family immediately, would it be more humane to release the news through the media if people are already discussing the incident and those affected by it on social media? Would releasing the news on an official channel—even without family notification—help clear up confusion and offer confirmation instead of allowing unconfirmed speculation to fester? And couldn’t it be argued that that would be more respectful of the families?

I’m not sure that’s the right answer—but I’m also pretty sure that the answer is less black or white than it once was.

I’d like your input on this one: What do you think? Does the speed of social media mean that the days of waiting to notify a family before releasing the names of the deceased are coming to an end?

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Comments (9)

  1. By Rodger Johnson:

    Brad, you ask a very interesting question. But I think the answer is still black and white. The person tweeting or blogging about an incident is not a professional and typically doesn’t have all of the facts. As journalists and public relations professionals working in media, we have a higher calling than Joe and Jane Main Street to report accurate information in a timely manner.

    If the timeliness of that is “delayed” because we want to be certain the deceased family has been notified, and that extra time, puts our release second instead of first, I believe that will garner more respect. At the end of the day, I would rather go to sleep knowing for certain my work respected and honored people, especially in the event you write about here.

  2. By Brad Phillips:

    Rodger,

    Thanks very much for sharing your view – this is a complicated scenario with few easy choices.

    I suspect we’re moving toward a time when the whole “We’re going to wait until we’ve notified the family” ethos disappears. It seems to me that the entire culture of social media – in which people share everything (even if it’s wrong), get it out before they have all of the facts, and discuss speculation – is going to make that expression a relic. Like you, I’m not thrilled with that possibility.

    Thanks for commenting!
    Brad

  3. By Steve Liewer:

    Excellent timely topic, Brad. I was a reporter for 25 years — including 10+ years covering the military — before I took a job in 2010 conducting media training for officers at a military staff college. Many of my students have dealt with this issue when losing a soldier under their command in wartime. The Pentagon has strict rules about notifications and shuts down phones and computers at combat posts when a death has occurred. Still, many service members now carry their own satellite phones and smartphones. So word can leak out.

    I do think most reporters would rather NOT reveal the names before families have been notified. It is tough enough to make those calls to the families of murder or accident victims (or soldiers KIA). Breaking the news to them would be a terrible added burden. I’ve known reporters who inadvertently revealed someone’s death to next of kin and were scarred by the experience. I’ve also known people who found out about the death of a loved one on the news. None were glad to have learned the news on “the news.”

    Still, I fear you are right. Competitive pressures are growing in the social media age. That boilerplate phrase “the victim’s name is being withheld until his/her family is notified” is likely to fade into history as a relic of a slower-paced era.

  4. By Julia Stewart:

    Hi Brad — The old-fashioned southern gal in me really hopes that good manners will in fact ultimately rule. Just because we CAN tweet or otherwise post doesn’t mean that we SHOULD. Discretion is an incredible trait. Isn’t the media in a position to help guide behavior here? Your turn, call me naive.

  5. By Brad Phillips:

    Steve,

    Thank you for sharing your personal experiences and for your smartly argued comment.

    You made a point I neglected to – that reporters themselves often don’t want to reveal the names of families, but occasionally feel a competitive pressure to do so. But sadly, we share the same conclusion, that this boilerplate appears to have an expiration date.

    Thanks for reading!
    Brad

  6. By Brad Phillips:

    Julia,

    I would never call you naive, maybe just hopeful? :)

    Although I hope for the same, I’m skeptical. This article of mine (written after CNN and Fox blew the Supreme Court “ObamaCare” verdict) contains a short history of the media’s inaccurate race to the finish line: http://www.mrmediatraining.com/2012/06/28/todays-blown-supreme-court-call-on-cnn-and-fox-news/. Until they give me reason to believe otherwise, I’m inclined to believe we’re racing to the bottom, not the top.

    Thanks for commenting!
    Brad

  7. By Kimber:

    I do not want my comment to come across as demeaning the bigger picture of, “Should you wait until the family is notified of a death,” but in sports we deal with the issue of “Information being released before a player is notified.”

    The trade deadline is one of the busiest days of the season in hockey (or any sport) for management as they try and better their team for either a playoff run or for the future. Players are on edge because they don’t know if they’ll be on the ice skating and get pulled off to be informed that they’ve been dealt. The media is so connected that it has literally become a race to see who can tweet the information first. Instead of worrying about who can write the better story about how BLANK player will fit in with the team or how this deal helps the future, the media is too fixated on tweeting the news first. There have been players that said they found out about being traded from watching TSN TradeTracker (see first :30 of link below).

    http://video.blackhawks.nhl.com/videocenter/console?catid=0&id=100325&cmpid=embed-share-video

    It really is a shame that players wind up finding out about a trade this way. It is life altering news that they’re going to pick up their world and move it to another city. The media should have to wait until all players are notified and the information is properly filed to the league, much like there seems to be in news reporting when someone tragically passes away.

    It goes the other way as well where media speculates about where a player may be dealt and family and friends of a player see this before a deal is even done. We’ve had players call to ask if its true that they’ve been traded, to find out the reports are false, but because the media is so into breaking the news and often times are correct, a player’s world gets turned upside down for no reason.

    Until that day, when there is a system set forth to allow a period of time between the finalization of a deal and alerting the media, we are left to confirming the news that the media has already reported.

  8. By Jocelyn B:

    Hi Brad,
    Great question!
    I am a former newspaper reporter, now in PR. I also live in a small town, so I know, someone ALWAYS knows something before the family does. The first responders, the nurses, the doctors – hell, when the town busybody sees the undertaker get into his black van, she knows there has been a death in the community. So we can’t control who is talking about us or to the family, but as PR professionals, we can control our image. For me, that image includes ALWAYS talking to a family before you release a name. It doesn’t matter if their timeline doesn’t fit with our crisis communication strategy. It is about basic humanity. And it is my guess that is why you got goosebumps when all the media stuck to the embargo.

  9. By Sarah Long:

    When my son was a midshipman at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, a student unexpectedly died under curious circumstances (found dead in their bunk one morning). The mother found out by other USNA parents posting condolences on her facebook page. I have to think there is a better way.

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