Covering the Worst Thing

Every broadcast news team needs a written policy addressing how they will handle student or faculty deaths on the air, when emotions are running high and judgement can be clouded by grief.

This is not a topic anyone wants to think about, but we must.  It is best to have something in place so you are not making it up as you go, especially when feelings are raw, and there are numerous ways you can inadvertently offend or upset members of your audience with a perceived slight, or an innocent oversight.  

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Broadcast staffs usually have to respond quickly, and that makes having an established, written plan that much more important.  Here are some things to consider:

*It is appropriate to reach out to the family before the tribute.  Even consider having a school counselor or the principal ask the family about it.  The last thing you want to do is offend the family.  They might even provide a photo they would like you to use.  

*Make on-air tributes consistent in running time.  Whether it is 10, 20 or 30 the same approximate length for everyone, and save them for the end of the show.

*The less said, the better.  I suggest the anchor introduce it with something straightforward:  "As we leave you today, we remember John Smith, a  member of our student body who was lost over the weekend.  We send our condolences to his family and friends." Then follow with a photo or video clip, or both, of maybe 15 seconds, with the name in a graphic.  Fade to black.

*Do not get caught up in how the student died.  Yes, maybe suicide has a different impact than say, a student lost in a traffic accident.  Your job is to simply pay tribute to the life, and the memory, not to judge their method of passing by giving less or more coverage based on circumstances.  

*Avoid using music with lyrics.  If you play music in your tribute, instrumental tracks are safest.

*Doing no memorial piece at all is basically ignoring the thing everyone is talking about, and thinking about.  It is actually better to provide the catharsis many people will get from your brief tribute.  Doing nothing can actually draw attention to you and your staff, which is the last thing you want to do.  

*Having a written policy, one you are free to share with anyone who questions your approach, is smart.  It is also smart to run it past a trusted counselor and administrator to make sure everyone understands your policy up front.

There are always extenuating circumstances that can force you to veer from your policy.  There can be requests from the family that impact your decision.  Still, having a policy in place, instead of making it up as you go, can save everyone some heartache, and avoid uncomfortable situations in moments of great pain and sadness.