April 7, 2020

Welcome to Alma Matters, a regularly updated feature on Poynter.org to assist educators and student media organizations.

Struggling and need advice? Have a tip or tool you want to share with others? Email me at ballen@poynter.org.

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One of the toughest rites of passage for young journalists is writing about someone who just died.

For many working journalists, interviewing distraught loved ones and grieving friends is a hard but necessary part of the job — and something we’re used to.

The nation’s student journalists are about to face this nearly alone.

The in-person support network that a college newsroom used to offer is gone, replaced by teleconferencing and texts.

Advisers and experienced student editors should be mindful of their staff members as the death toll for COVID-19 mounts, keeping an eye out not just on deceased community members but the students who are being asked to cover their deaths.

Here are my best tips for dealing with death. I hope you won’t need them.

A hard necessity

First and foremost, understand that writing about a person who has died is important and meaningful. You cannot skip this part of the job because it’s intimidating. Telling stories of people’s lives and deaths is a way that journalism connects humanity, and that’s more important now than ever.

An easy litmus test: Think of someone you truly hold dear, and imagine them dying (unpleasant, I know). Now imagine that a local TV station airs a long story about this person without ever talking to you. How do you feel about being excluded from this process to tell stories and celebrate the life of your loved one? Carry that thinking with you throughout your reporting process. It will help you always do the right thing.

Make a plan

If they haven’t already, student media organizations should get a plan in place. Consider:

  • Who will write profiles of the deceased?
  • Who will edit and fact-check them?
  • Has your staff been briefed on how to deal with grieving sources?
  • Will you treat students, faculty, staff, donor and alumni deaths the same or differently?
  • Where will these stories reside? Are you creating a special page?
  • Who will gather photos and perhaps audio/video?

Interview skillfully

Interviewing the bereaved is hard enough in person, but this time it’s going to be even harder without the body language and potential physical contact you can have with sources.

You should do it anyway.

Arrange a time and place for a phone call, Facetime, Zoom, or Google Hangout, or whatever technology you’re most comfortable with and are assured the other party can use. Encourage your source to pass the phone/device around and talk to as many loved ones as you can if there are multiple people at the home.

Loved ones congregating at one home may not happen now, so be sure to get as many names and numbers as you can from your initial source so you can call other people.

As with most journalism, a richer and more full story emerges as you talk to more people. Do not rely on texts or emails for these stories if at all possible. Really attempt personal connection, even if it’s virtual.

Where to start with sources

A cardinal rule of death writing is that you must talk to the family and friends — you cannot rely on loving social media posts or online funeral home memory books.

The best sources for stories about death are immediate family — spouses, children, parents. Start there and move outward toward siblings, friends, cousins and coworkers.

Call the funeral home. Often there’s a person designated there to be a contact for the family, and the funeral home will let that person know there’s a media inquiry into their loved one’s death. Some funeral homes understand the important role journalism plays in mourning; others don’t. Don’t be intimidated either way.

What to ask

Do research beforehand. Your list of questions should attempt to answer some basic biographical questions: the decedent’s birthplace/hometown, where they grew up, where they moved around to and settled or lived when they died, where they went to high school and/or college, their major, the date they graduated or were set to graduate, where they worked and in what industry, the name of their spouse(s), the year they got married, names and birth years of children. You should also ask about hobbies, interests, extracurriculars or volunteer work. The more questions about their life you have going into an interview, the smoother it will go.

Use other published material and social accounts to fact-check and backup your story.

Don’t forget the pictures

Get photos. Publish several. Write good cutlines on each one.

It’s preferable to ask for family photos than to take them from social media profiles, but you can also ask permission to use social photos. Sharing a photo on social media does not waive ownership, and it’s not an invitation for you to copy and republish it, experts say.

Style and accuracy check

As hard as it is sometimes, we always say that someone died, not that they “passed away” or “passed on.” You can certainly use this language in your questions, but when it comes time to write the story, stick to “died.”

Generally, obits and death stories focus on the positive parts of a person’s life. That’s generally OK.

Bear in mind that a project like this is an important historical work that may be kept in the family for generations to come. Often, this is the single bit of press a person will get in his or her lifetime.

Self-care matters

Despite what we might have heard from older generations of journalists, you shouldn’t tough this out alone. There’s absolutely no shame in having and sharing serious emotions around death, and your experiences as you gather news around that topic. You want to maintain a level of professionalism, but even the pros can become distraught on the job.

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma offers the tip sheet Covering Breaking News: Interviewing Victims and Survivors that’s worth reading in its entirety, and Poynter has this advice for self-care for journalists.

Here are highlights from the Dart Center’s tip sheet:

  • Be careful when you approach sources
    • Be transparent, calm and soft-spoken.
    • Identify who you are, what organization you represent, what will happen with the information you collect from the interview, how it might be used and when it will appear.
    • Tell them why you want to talk with them.
    • If they are open to an interview, then proceed. If not, then leave your contact information with them and ask them to contact you anytime if they would like to talk.
    • If they are not interested in talking, or willing to speak on the record, there will be another opportunity to find another source.
  • Be sincere when meeting with victims and survivors.
    • Don’t patronize.
    • Don’t ask “How do you feel?”
    • Don’t say “I know how you feel,” or “I totally understand,”  because in most cases nobody truly knows what somebody else is going through.
  • Be empathic in interviews
    • Empathetic interviewing shows the source your interest, attentiveness and care in telling their story. Such responses include:
      • “So what you’re saying is…”
      • “From what you’re saying, I can see how you would be…”
      • “You must be …”
  • Give ample time for the interview – you may need more time than you think.
  • Record the interviews so you can always go back and listen – in case you missed something in your notes.
  • Don’t take things personally. Sometimes sources may be going through interpersonal responses to trauma and may not be showing you signs in the interview of interaction – don’t take this personally, it may be the way they are dealing with the situation.

Final tip

Don’t bottle up your feelings. Don’t forget that covering a traumatic event can impact you, too. Be sure to find ways to talk about the experience with your friends, family, adviser or editor. They may have covered something similar and/or can just be a listening ear. You should not keep your emotions bottled up; sharing your experience is one way of coping with witnessing and reporting on such a difficult event.

Send me your questions, ideas, solutions and tips. I’ll try to help as much as I can in a future column. Contact me at ballen@poynter.org or on Twitter at barbara_allen_

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Barbara Allen is the director of college programming for Poynter. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of Poynter.org. She spent two decades in…
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