top of page

Bringing Empathy to Writing - Reporting on Grief, Death and Loss

They say that the pen is mightier than the sword, and rightfully so. Our words carry tremendous power, especially in the context of news and media given the influence they have in terms of shaping narratives and on the emotions of readers.

When it comes to writing about issues around grief, death and loss, while these cannot be avoided, it is important to be empathetic, sensitive and compassionate when reporting on such cases, just as it is in the case of suicide reporting. The media has the right to report on death and tragedy, but while doing so, it is important to be respectful, exercise some restraint and be aware of the impact their work can have. Journalists and media persons have many choices to make when handling a death. Those choices, in turn, often have unintended emotional consequences. When writing about grief and death, what might feel like "normal" reporting may leave subjects, family members, or friends in a state of increased stress, as reactions to death can trigger heightened emotions, trauma and in some cases, can also cause lasting harm or the increased risk of suicide or self-harm.

To prevent adding to the trauma of those left behind, there are few ethical guidelines which the media can keep as a ready reckoner when it comes to reporting death, grief and loss. They are as follows:

  • Confirm the details before hand - As a reporter working on the incident, they should ensure that they have the correct and complete information on what has happened, the cause of the death and the confirmation of the news. As a reporter, it is also vital to remember that they are not supposed to break the news to the immediate family of the deceased person.

  • Be transparent, honest and respectful when approaching sources - When approaching a family or loved one for a quote or interview, it is important to be mindful of their emotional state at the time of approaching them. Reporters shouldn’t assume that they know what others are going through or begin the interview without their consent. Know that there may be some who might not be ready to talk about it, and as a reporter, it is key to be mindful of that. Acknowledge their loss, honour their grief and clarify the intentions for the interview. Treat them with patience, respect and compassion while being sensitive of how and when the interviews are done. When approaching someone for an interview, it is beneficial for reporters to identify themselves, what organization they represent, what will happen with the information collected from the interview, how it might be used and when it will appear. Reporters need to be sincere and not patronising or claim to understand how the bereaved are feeling.

  • Accuracy really matters - When journalists are constantly working to deadlines, and are under pressure to get stories produced quickly, there are chances of making errors and mistakes, these can range from mis-spelling the deceased’s name, getting their pronouns wrong, misnaming the cause of death or missing some details which can be very upsetting to a grieving loved ones.

  • Verify sources - A cardinal rule of reporting around death is that reporters must talk to the family and friends instead of relying on just social media posts or online funeral home memory books. The best sources for stories about death are immediate family, and moving from there reporters can move outwards towards friends and co-workers.

  • Focus on context - When using information, particularly photos and quotes, focus on the context of where it has come from. For instance, if there are photos on social media, they are often from a particular time and using them in pieces about death or grief can be very triggering, traumatic or might illustrate a different story in itself. When a person dies if they're at the center of a news story it can actually be quite upsetting to see images from social networking sites that the media have taken, as these are not images that necessarily the bereaved individuals would like this individual to be remembered by. To add depth to the article, reporters might also choose to include the comments from experts and other credible resources.

  • Understand privacy - When using photos from social media, try to understand that just because something appears on social media, doesn’t mean it is free for use automatically in the article. Additionally, when writing the piece, reporters don’t need to publish unnecessary details of the death. It is also important to respect the privacy of relationship labels.

  • Be sensitive and not sensational - While deaths are public matters, they are also extremely sensitive and often painful matters. When it comes to interacting with media, know that some people may be more open to speaking to reporters than others, and that needs to be respected. When approaching people affected by the loss, show empathy, compassion and exercise discretion. It is important to avoid sensationalising the news piece or using hyperbole in headlines and in reporting as these will only cause unnecessary hurt to the friends and family of the deceased.

  • Take extra caution in case of suicide related death - When someone is bereaved by suicide it's quite an intense form of mourning and they might be experiencing additional emotions because of the fact it's a suicide. There could be feelings like grief, of shock, of guilt, of not being able to understand why this particular death has occurred and reporters needs to be mindful of that. There may also be suicidal feelings being experienced by family members themselves, and it is crucial to understand that they might be vulnerable at this time as well. There are several other guidelines with regards to suicide reporting which have been discussed in a previous blog post.

As someone writing on death, grief, tragedy and loss, it can take a toll on reporters as well and thus it is important for them to take care of themselves and their Mental Health. They don’t need to bottle up their feelings - they should speak to a loved one, an editor, advisor or a Mental Health professional who can lend a listening ear. Additionally, sometimes sources might appear to be a bit hostile during the time they are approached, but this should not be taken personally as it could be their way of coping with the situation.

Death is inevitable and it is a subject which writers, reporters and media personnel will come across in their work. This is not a subject that should be avoided, but rather, handled pragmatically, carefully and thoughtfully - because this is a matter of being compassionate, being considerate and being human.


Written by: Vedica Podar

September, 2021

bottom of page