Explainer: Showing some tact, Journalists reporting on grief and Molly’s Law

18 January 2013

Written by: Steinar Ellingsen

Throughout their career, journalists undertake a death knock, which is when they approach a grieving family about the death of a loved one, usually quite soon after the death, also known as ‘vulture journalism.’

explainersWhen done in a sensitive manner, a death knock gives a grieving family an opportunity to share the life of their loved one to the world, celebrating the person that they were. A death knock could even assist in murder cases as it incites publicity on a heinous crime.

However, when done without the right amount of care, journalists can cause a family in mourning even further grief.

The pressure that journalists feel to be first on the scene or to get the exclusive interview or photograph, can sometimes get in the way of a their personal ethics, even though they are still operating within the framework of the law.

A prime example of this occurred in July last year after the tragic death of Molly Lord, who tragically died in a quad bike accident at only 13-years-old. Consequently, the media swarmed the Lord’s private property looking for a story.

But it was the next move from the media that caused the biggest stir, with several agencies coming under fire for the way in which they obtained and distributed their images and information, which has been deemed morally and ethically wrong by many.

Ethically wrong but legally okay

How the media covered the death of Molly Lord, however insensitive, was deemed legal. but we have to ask, why?

According to Peter Lord in an article he wrote in The Australian, journalists continually came onto the family’s property during the day, asking friends and family for comment, even after they were asked to leave.

There are currently no specific invasion of privacy laws in Australia and journalists do have the right to come to the front door and ask for an interview. However, when refused, it is protocol for journalists to leave the property. So why didn’t these journalists leave when asked? The absence of punishment seems as though even the clear-cut laws are not airtight.

As paramedics turned away out of respect to the Lord family as they said their final goodbyes to Molly, journalists took photographs of Molly’s mother Linda Goldspink-Lord embracing her deceased daughter, who was only partially covered by a sheet. WIN News showed these images on their nightly bulletin, taken by long lenses from their helicopter, which was fighting Channel 7’s aircraft for the best pictures, according to Goldspink-Lord.

Legally, helicopters were not on private property as they were flying overhead (the law states that photographs can be taken as long as the reporter is not on private property) and were, according to them, at a reasonable height, which was around 500 metres.

The Illawarra Mercury published the story as front page news, even after Peter Lord, in Hong Kong at the time, asked the paper not to. In addition, the picture on the front page was of a grieving Goldspink-Lord, Molly’s name and her sister’s name were published without permission and Goldspink-Lord alleges that footage of the scene was put up before she could even contact all of her family.

The Australian Media and Communications Authority (ACMA) guidelines state “appropriate regard to the feelings of relatives and viewers” must be taken, but what is deemed “appropriate” is not determined specifically. As there is no definitive law regarding the way a journalist should behave when reporting on grief, boundaries were pushed and the actions taken were deemed within the parameters of our legal system.

The ACMA guidelines also explain that they consider many elements when deciding whether a journalist has breached privacy guidelines, such as if the journalist intruded a person’s seclusion and whether the intrusion was in the public interest. However, the ACMA works on a case by case basis.

The story was determined by Channel 7’s news program as in the public interest, issuing a warning regarding quad bike safety.

The Media Alliance Code of Ethics Guideline Clause states:

“Basic values often need interpretation and sometimes come into conflict. Ethical journalism requires conscientious decision-making in context. Only substantial advancement of the public interest or risk of substantial harm to people allows any standard to be overridden.”

This seems like a loose guideline, as each journalist may have a different interpretation as to what is ethical and what is not in regards to reporting on sensitive matters such as death.

The Commercial Television Code of Practice states that licensees “must exercise sensitivity when broadcasting images of … bereaved relative or survivors or witnesses of traumatic incidents”. WIN believed that they complied with this code.

But Fairfax goes another step further and asks journalists to reflect on their own actions and performance when deciding how to behave when getting their stories.

The Fairfax Media Code of Conduct asks the question: “Would I be proud of what I have done?”

Can WIN, Channel 7 or the Illawarra Mercury answer “yes” to Fairfax’s question?

All of these media agencies have since removed all of the footage that the Lord family – and the general public – deemed distressing and offensive. However, the family believes that the damage has already been done.

No matter how inconsiderate and morally questionable, what journalists did to the Lord family was within the parameters of the legal system, resulting in the family’s official complaints to the ACMA and Press Council.

In addition, they have now set up the campaign to introduce Molly’s Law.

What does Molly’s Law propose?

Molly’s Law, if passed, would allow family and friends the legal right to grieve over loved ones privately and without the intrusion of the media. It is proposing a clear-cut law that could possibly end the act of death knocks forever.

A petition published on August 7 last year states that Molly’s Law requests for laws to be put into place that restricts the media from contacting families of the deceased within 48 hours of their passing. It also ensures that within the 48 hour timeframe that no photographs or names shall be published and any photographs of deceased children under 18 years old will only be published with permission of the parents.

Molly’s Law is also asking for journalists to cease conducting spot interviews where the family home, property or any licence plates are in view.

What is already being done?

Unfortunately, the ambition to get a “newsworthy” story can sometimes go too far. In the case of Molly Lord’s tragic death, journalists may possibly look back on the unfolding of events and feel regret.

The Lord family met with Senator Stephen Conroy in September to discuss the intrusion into their grief, asking for change. Although nothing has been confirmed by Conroy just yet, there is speculation that elements of Molly’s Law will be present in the new system. Reports in September suggested that there may be a new privacy tort introduced, which would give people the right to sue if they feel their privacy has been breached by the media.

The ACMA introduced new privacy guidelines last year that related to media coverage of grief and death, however this has not seemed to stop the Australian media from intruding on what should have been a very private period for the Lord family.

Only time will tell if something will be done to prevent an incident such as this from happening again.

Stephanie Azzopardi is a third-year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University. You can read her blog here or follow her on Twitter: @StephAzzopardi.