Research highlights lack of scrutiny of coroners’ courts

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Dr Amy Binns and Sophie Arnold’s new research highlights lack of scrutiny of coroners’ courts.

New UCLan report focusses on the reduction in news coverage of inquests

A reduction in media coverage of coroners’ inquests means there is a lack of public scrutiny of coroners’ courts, according to new research published this week by the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).

After analysing a variety of local newspapers throughout England and Wales, Dr Amy Binns, Senior Lecturer in Digital Journalism, and Sophie Arnold, Lecturer in Shorthand and Journalism, found only 11 per cent of all inquests which took place in a two-month period were reported by the press.

Their research, published in Journalism Practice, by Routledge, highlights how the closure of local newspaper offices and the reduction in the remaining number of journalists are among the main factors as to why coverage has been affected.

The report also focusses on the change in police and reporter relationships, and the variety of information provided by coroners’ offices, despite national guidelines updated three years’ ago recommending greater transparency.

Dr Binns, who worked as a newspaper reporter for 10 years, said: “It is clear the level of reporting of inquests in the UK is a matter of concern and the importance of this cannot be underestimated. Although many inquests may be only routine recordings of facts a reporting rate of 11 per cent, with 0% in some areas, represents a significant lack of provision of independent oversight into the unexpected deaths of British citizens, and a consequent loss to public interest investigations.

Due to falling newspaper advertising revenue, there is a shrinking number of local journalists. Fewer attend court, thus many more inquests go unreported. Some deaths are missed altogether.

“Due to falling newspaper advertising revenue, there is a shrinking number of local journalists. Fewer attend court, thus many more inquests go unreported. Some deaths are missed altogether.

“Deaths may also go unreported at the time due to centralisation of both police and newspaper offices, which has led to fewer direct contacts between police and journalists. A general cultural shift of passing media inquiries to a police ‘communications team’ of PR specialists also means news is likely to be filtered to give a more positive sense of police success.”

Figures differed widely across the various geographical locations, with Exeter’s local media covering nine of 29 inquests while Newcastle’s news outlets covered none of the 13 cases.

The research also pinpoints the age of the deceased and nature of death affected coverage. Suicide, road traffic collision, unlawful killing and drugs-related deaths were among the cases which attracted media interest.

Sophie said: “We found coverage varies wildly, with some ‘news deserts’ where inquests are rarely reported. It seems likely that some news media are following the proceedings of the coroners’ courts closely and reporting most significant cases while for others it is extremely rare for a reporter to attend an inquest – it seems likely that the coroners’ courts have entirely dropped off the local media’s radar, and that even cases with great public interest significance would be likely to be missed.”

The report, which could not compare figures with previous data due to the radical change of reporting types of deaths for inquest in the aftermath of the Harold Shipman case in 2005, can be viewed online.

Rachel Atkinson | 17 June 2020