Guidelines for Covering Funerals
When journalists cover funerals, they must do so with the highest degree of sensitivity and professionalism. Although stories of funerals can be deeply moving, newsworthy and even healing for an audience, there is great potential for journalists to intrude on a family's privacy and cause pain to already vulnerable people.
What is the journalistic purpose? Beyond the emotions of the event, why is this funeral newsworthy? What do we expect to hear and/or see that our public needs to know? What motivations do you have for covering the service?
Who is the individual? Is this person a public figure or well known? The coverage of the funeral of a head of state or a well-known figure can be important to the grieving and healing process of a community.
What were the circumstances of the death? The death of a person who has lived a long and productive life is commemorated differently from the death of a young person or a person killed in an act of violence or negligence.
How welcome is media coverage? Surviving families often request and should be given privacy in their time of grief. However, sometimes families want media coverage so the deceased will not die anonymously. If the family requests your presence or grants coverage of the service, tell your audience so they know you have permission.
How to approach the surviving family: When requesting to cover a funeral, consider using a third party, such as a family friend, funeral director or member of the clergy, to approach the family for permission. Once you have the family's permission, the funeral home or clergy may be a better contact for helping to determine your coverage plan.
Minimize intrusion: Pooling arrangements can minimize the number of journalists who have to be inside the place of worship or funeral home. Electronic devices, such as small, wireless microphones and cameras that operate in low light and have long zoom lenses, can minimize the need for journalists to be intrusive while recording a funeral service. Journalists can also get close-ups of flowers, candles and other useful shots before anyone arrives. Journalists covering funerals should dress appropriately, plan to arrive early and stay until the service is completed. Photojournalists should minimize their physical movement inside the service and do their work as unobtrusively as possible.
How can we tell the story without pictures? Consider alternatives to covering the actual service. Consider telling the story, for example, with the service audio running over exterior pictures of building where the service is being held.
Minimize harm: Be judicious in selecting the images you show on the air and the sound you use in the story. How would you justify the use of people crying, collapsing or grieving? What alternatives have you considered to using those highly intrusive images? If you cover the funeral service, do you also have to cover the graveside service, which can be even more emotional for those involved? How will you use the images in your newscast headlines, teases and promotions? Minimize the use of highly charged adjectives such as "tragic, emotional, painful and tearful."
Created by Al Tompkins, The Poynter Institute, for RTDNF's Journalism Ethics Project.