Friday, August 20, 2010

Covering Funerals: What's Appropriate

The caskets of Devean Duley and Ja'van Duley arrive for funeral services in Orangeburg, SC.
(Photo Credit: Mary Ann Chastain/The Associated Press)

I received a phone call on Thursday from a television reporter in Columbia, South Carolina who wanted to ask my opinion on using some pictures that her videographer shot during their assignment. They were covering the visitation for Devean and Ja’van Duley, two toddlers allegedly killed by their mother and disposed of in the Edisto River in Orangeburg County.

The reporter informed me that they had video of the boys in their caksets while family members and others paid respects at the funeral home. Some of the video clearly showed the boys from various angles, some of them being close-up shots. The reporter’s question was, “would it be appropriate to use the video?”

I must admit that as she explained to me what they had, I cringed feeling that we, in the media, often cross the line of decency and sensitivity in our quest to present a story. In this case, the Duley story has garnered national attention a horrific tragedy, reminding many people of the Susan Smith case 16 years ago, also in South Carolina. When two young children are found dead in a car, in a river and their mother is accused of killing them, it almost goes without saying that reporters, photojournalists and video journalists will follow the story until it’s ultimate resolution in court. Unfortunately, that includes the grieving process.

I think there are some lessons journalists-- particularly young journalists with limited experience with such stories-- can learn from this about covering gieving families and funerals.

  1. In the rush to be the first reporter or news organization to get an interview with a family member, DO NOT FORGET HUMAN DECENCY! Don’t show up at the family’s home-- camera rolling, mic in hand-- asking if someone will speak to you. While you may feel it shows you are an aggressive reporter, your viewers-- not to mention, the family-- will see you as insensitive and inappropriate. Find a family spokesperson and inquire about the possibility of securing an interview with the immediate family when they are ready to talk.
  2. Find out, ahead of time, if the family will allow visual and audio coverage of events related to the funeral. Again, this is just common courtesy.
  3. If the family allows such coverage, do not be invasive. Shoot video from a tasteful distance and be respectful of the grief you and your viewers may witness. Do not shoot close-up video or still photos of an open casket with the body clearly visible. Have respect for the deceased and sensitivity for the grieving family and others.
  4. If the family does not allow coverage of the actual services, shoot arrival and dismissal video from an appropriate position near the church, funeral home or burial site.

When in doubt, consider how you would feel if the media invaded your privacy during a time of bereavement.

Here are some examples of acceptable funeral coverage from The State (Newspaper), and WLTX-TV:

Duley Funeral Photo Gallery

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