Journalists must, above all, adhere to the law and to the regulatory texts.
Article 6.2 of the European Convention for Human Rights specifies that “Everyone charged with a criminal offence shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.”
Article 8 protects the right of all citizens to a private life. It states that “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.”
These general principles of presumption of innocence, the respect for the right to a private life and of the status of minors are applied to press legislation in all countries.
Following the example of the Ouest-France regional newspaper, some editorial departments now have a code of conduct or specific, formalised rules for treating what the French press calls ‘les faits divers’ (human interest stories). In this way, journalistic practice within the same media organisation is standardised.
Other organisations simply apply their in-house principles, such as they are.
In its 2013 annual report, the Observatoire de la deontologie de l’information (ODI – Ethics watchdog of the journalistic profession) studied the media handling of several ‘faits divers’ stories which highlighted different lines of approach.
Most regulatory texts reflect broad principles which can be applied to the treatment of ‘faits divers’.
The King Baudouin foundation and the Association of Professional Journalists created a site on the relationship between the press and the justice system.
They also wrote a guide to press and justice which has two objectives: “make available to journalists basic information on our judicial system and present the professional ethical principles in force and the laws that must be complied with when accessing sources and in the treatment of judicial news.”
In its latest non-binding directives, the Swiss Press Council laid down a number of rules relating to the treatment of ‘faits divers’.
The Spanish constitution guarantees the presumption of innocence. Since 1982, there has been a law guaranteeing the right to honour and to personal, family and image privacy. Often though, the justice system acts case by case, according to legal precedents.
The professional ethical code General Principles produced by the main journalist trade union (FAPE) provides further clarification by soliciting professionals not to interview, photograph or film minors in a criminal or private context, for example.
In the absence of Brazilian legislation regarding the reporting of these stories, there is a tendency towards sensationalism and the use of shocking images. There are few media organisations with rules but most of the time it is the most sensational image that is used.
Even though the expression ‘fait divers’ does not actually exist in the United Kingdom, these sorts of news stories are very widespread in the press. In keeping with the Anglo-Saxon concept of freedom of expression and in the absence of a written constitution, the British media competes to find ways of reporting murders, suicides, etc.
At the same time, professional charters propose a variety of approaches, rights and constraints. In this context, the debate on how the press can and should treat these subjects continues.
De Standaard : Scrupulously
There are no specific internal rules for the treatment of these stories at De Standaard but the code of professional ethics and standards for the Flemish Dutch language press are scrupulously adhered to.
The newspaper gives relatively little space to the ‘news in brief’ genre although it does not exclude treating stories that are being widely talked about.
The newspaper respects rules not to disclose the names of minors, victims or torturers, nor the full names of suspects under legal examination, even if other, less scrupulous, publications have already put the information in the public domain.
Europe 1 : Appropriately
Europe 1 defines itself as a ‘quality mainstream radio station’, and therefore gives prominence according to the importance of the subject. A Police-Justice committee made up of five journalists, sorts through news stories and decides how to deal with them. The criteria are that the story is relevant to our time and is not too sordid.
France 24 : According to all cultures
As an international channel, France 24 covers little general ’news in brief’
Le Monde : Nothing is formalised
Names are provided in accordance with the law.
When a person is taken into custody and still presumed innocent, their name is also published.
Ouest France : A pioneering internal charter
Ouest-France drew up a charter to deal with general news and ‘news in brief’ in 1990, the first French daily newspaper to do this.
Since then, the question is regularly reviewed in order to ensure consistency and homogeneity by local editorial teams, and to avoid court cases, while staying true to the newspaper values.
Berliner Zeitung : There are laws and the press code
Laws relating to the rights of individuals and the German press codex are applied, thus, for example, there is no coverage of suicides except in very specific cases.
In litigation cases, the editorial committee will discuss the matter and in the final analysis the Editor-in-chief will decide.
ZDF : Very moderately
There is no particular treatment or system in place for these stories.
The channel respects its public service duty and definitely does not place this type of story as the leading news subjects.
The Irish Times : Respect for the law above all
The newspaper scrupulously respects the general law which protects – rather well – citizens involved in this type of story before any possible conviction. It is forbidden to disclose the names of victims or perpetrators of rape, to name the parties in cases of divorce, to name minors, etc.
There is no code for the treatment of general news and ‘news in brief’ as such but the in-house culture is implicit and clear. The Irish Times is careful not to reveal the origins or religion of anybody, even internally, unless this information is thought necessary to a story.
Polskie Radio, kanal 3 : Influenced by private media
National public radio has been tainted and for the past few years has been treating this type of human interest story much more than it did in the past. It now follows the rest of the media and covers subjects simply because the private radio stations have. Some claim that privately owned media has also significantly lowered journalistic and ethical standards and the country now finds itself in a situation where reference texts exist but daily professional pressures mean that they have less sway.
BBC : Responsibly and in context
The BBC tries not to give too much importance to human interest news, never making it the top story of a news broadcast.
When these kind of news are treated, the highlight is on the context and the perspective.
The BBC is very aware of not broadcasting images which can be shocking to victims and their families.
The Guardian : Carefully
The Guardian is interested in stories with meaning and treats them sensitively, so, for example, the newspaper will avoid details on the method of a suicide.
It is also aware of not misusing psychiatric terms to describe a criminal.
Journalists do not harass families of victims and do not emphasise the emotions of these families.
It does not interview young people below the age of 16 without the authorisation of the parents.