Brake Family Liaison Officer Handbook: Helping bereaved families with the media

Journalists from newspapers, radio or TV programmes often want to cover crashes and court cases that follow. You cannot stop the media from reporting on a case or publishing a family's name and where they are from. Journalists may publish or broadcast stories about a case without talking to a family, or they may phone a family, knock on their door without warning or approach them at a court hearing for a comment. They may ask for a photograph or home video of someone who has died. They may ask to interview or photograph a family member.   

Different people feel differently about the media. Some families may feel grateful for media coverage, or resent it, or feel disappointed that there isn't as much media coverage as they would like. It is up to them whether they talk to journalists or not. They may decide to talk to journalists to help raise awareness of road safety, or to help the police to find witnesses to the crash. They may find that they prefer to talk to some journalists but not to others. They may develop close relationships with some journalists and feel they have become friends. They may decide not to talk to journalists, for personal reasons.    

If a family isn't contacted by journalists but want media coverage, they can contact them themselves, or you may feel able to put in an initial call for the family (see below, however, for official police media relations regarding crashes) to find a relevant, interested journalist to prevent a family feeling snubbed or fobbed off by a busy and potentially rude journalist. A family might want to talk to their local newspaper, radio or TV station. Ring up the news room and ask to talk to the news editor or transport correspondent and take it from there.    

It is vital to tell families if there is anything they shouldn't talk about to journalists. If someone is accused of a death, it is important not to make comments that could create problems for a police investigation or a court case. As well as consulting your SIO, it may be relevant to consult the CPS or Procurator Fiscal (in Scotland) or suggest to the family, also, that they should speak to their personal injury solicitor.

Police help with the media   

The police can often help a family to manage their relationship with the media, particularly in the first few days after the crash or around any court case. The Police Family Liaison Strategy Manual by the Association of Chief Police Officers recommends that police work with families to develop a 'media strategy' that takes into account views of the family on whether they want coverage or not. You can download this strategy from this website.   

The police often release their own statements about crashes and resulting court cases to the media. If you do, it is important to inform the family about your intention to do this, and to give them a copy of anything you produce. It is also important to give families an opportunity to be involved, should they so wish, such as by including a photo or home video they provide, or a statement. In some cases, it may be helpful to organise a press conference for a family, so the majority of media interest is dealt with in one go. This might happen at the end of a court case, or as part of an appeal for witnesses.    

Choosing a photo or home video

When a family is choosing a photo or home video of someone who has died to pass on to the media, it is helpful to advise them to consider how that person would have wanted to be remembered. You can help by arranging for a photo to be altered if necessary- for example, taking a loved one's image from a group photo. Ensure you take good care of the photo and give it back promptly in good condition, particularly if it is an original. If possible, get copies of the photo for the family so they have spares for giving out to other family members or journalists. This is an easy, cheap but incredibly beneficial service for some families - photos are very precious.    

A few families have given the media a photo of a loved one's dead body, or of them critically ill in hospital before they died. They have done this as part of an appeal for witnesses or to explain to the public the horrors of road crashes. Brake has produced a separate Brake briefing on this topic which you can view on this website.    

It is possible to ask the media to use a photo for a specific purpose and on just one occasion, accompanied by specific words from the family, and then ask for the photo not to be used again. It is also possible to release a photo to just one journalist or lots of journalists.    

You are advised not to give original photos or home videos to the media in case they lose them. News rooms can be hectic, messy places.

Being interviewed by a journalist

Being interviewed by a journalist can be hard, particularly if they are a stranger and they are asking a family to talk about how they feel. It can also be particularly hard to do interviews that are being broadcast on radio or TV. If a family decides to talk to a journalist, it can help to ask in advance what questions they want to ask, and to think in advance about what the interviewed person might want to say. If they are doing an interview at a radio or TV station, you might want to offer to accompany them to the interview for support, or ask on behalf of the family if the interview could be done at their home instead.

Tags: police Family Liaison Officer