Don't Release Names Until The Families Have Been Notified?

I will never forget where I was on the late afternoon of July 24, 1998.

I was standing in the newsroom of ABC’s Nightline when a call came over our internal speaker system from the network’s Hill producer: two Capitol Hill police officers had been shot while on duty. The producer continued to update us for the next several minutes until she delivered this awful report:

“I can confirm that Detective John Gibson and Officer Joseph Chestnut were killed in this afternoon’s shooting. The families have not yet been notified. Do not report this news until I confirm that the families have been notified.”


The other networks were also running live coverage of the shooting. I watched the monitors nervously, convinced that one of the other networks would run the breaking news in order to be first, despite the fact that the families hadn’t been notified.

They didn’t. Every news outlet waited for the families to be notified before breaking the news. The embargo held. And I get goose bumps every time I think about the honor among news organizations that day.

It’s not just news organizations that have traditionally honored the “wait until families are notified” rule. Imagine you’re a plant manager and that an industrial accident just claimed the lives of three of your workers. Even if you know the names of the employees, crisis communications best practices advise you to notify the families before releasing the names to help spare them the additional agony of learning about the death of their loved one through a television report.

But that Capitol Hill shooting, which took place 14 years ago, predated social media and the proliferation of blogs. So when I saw this tweet in my stream last week, it made me pause:

In age of social media, people often share news about tragedies and crises long before the media do. So here’s a question: If a company can’t reach the deceased person’s family immediately, would it be more humane to release the news through the media if people are already discussing the incident and those affected by it on social media? Would releasing the news on an official channel—even without family notification—help clear up confusion and offer confirmation instead of allowing unconfirmed speculation to fester? And couldn’t it be argued that that would be more respectful of the families?

I’m not sure that’s the right answer—but I’m also pretty sure that the answer is less black or white than it once was.

I’d like your input on this one: What do you think? Does the speed of social media mean that the days of waiting to notify a family before releasing the names of the deceased are coming to an end?