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The #1 Rule When It Comes To Breaking The News

It should always be done in person, in a timely manner, in pairs, in plain language and with compassion

Helicopter crashed at Melawati. — YAP CHEE HONG/The Star

NEVER air or publish or upload the names of the victims (deceased or injured) UNTIL the victims next-of-kin or family has been notified.

Death notification is probably the toughest thing anyone can do. In the Western and European countries, this task falls under the Police Force

In Malaysia, who is this job tasked to?

In yesterdays’ (8th November 2020) helicopter crash incident – the family discovered it via a news channel notification and very likely the news conference held by the Police to the Media, or that was what it appeared to be reported.

From my personal experience when it comes to breaking news of such incidents, notifications should preferably always be done in person, in a timely manner, in pairs, in plain language and with compassion.

A picture containing outdoor, person, person, standing

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Source: Harian Metro

Breaking the news over the telephone or via SMS or WhatsApp is clearly the less acceptable method as it is difficult to ascertain the condition of the news recipient. 

The person might be a pregnant woman or someone who has a heart condition or if otherwise healthy, may faint due to the shock of the news, with no one to attend to them.

From the article on breaking news in USA, an assistant professor of criminal justice and forensics at North Georgia College and State University was quoted as saying that “Using the phone to make death notification is cold-hearted and a sign of intellectual laziness”. He further adds, “For all you know, the survivor might have a heart condition, be suicidal or eight months pregnant.”

A picture containing grass, young, person, child

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Source: Astro Awani

Death notification is important for both practical and humanitarian reasons. So imagine finding out about the death of a loved one, via a viral message on Social Media or WhatsApp or from a news segment on TV – with the deceased condition in full view.

I sincerely hope that this is a lesson for all of us to be more sensitive to the humanitarian need for dignity and care.

Source: Twitter

There were a lot of considerate users, who actually called out for the tv channels and other users to stop circulation of the diseased picture as a form of respect and sensitivity towards the family.

The image and perception of how the news is first broken to the family will remain and form a perception on whether the organization, police department or whoever responsible – to be either callous and uncaring or otherwise.

Notification should be done:

  1. In person. 
    • In this way, one can assess the recipient’s state, use the necessary language, sensitivity and take the necessary follow-up actions based on their reactions
    • Use of the telephone to make death notification is deemed as callous and insensitive. 
    • Always ask yourself how you would like your family notified.
  1. In pairs. 
    • Death notification is best done by at least two people and at least one of whom should be in uniform. 
    • However, do not arrive in a large group either – ideally, it is an organization representative, a police officer and a counselor.
    • Two vehicles are best, in the event medical transport may be necessary.
  1. In private. 
    • Present credentials or any other formal correspondence of notification from your organization or the medical officer. 
    • Request to go inside the residence or a meeting room or their office. 
    • Avoid making the notification on the porch or in a public place.
  1. In plain language. 
    • Avoid using medical jargon. 
    • Preferable to use simple, straightforward language to describe how, when and where the person died. 
    • Don’t be afraid to use the “D” words — dead, died or death. 
    • Terms such as “expired,” “passed on” or “lost” are words of denial. “Expired” can be used on a drivers’ license but not on a person — it’s disrespectful.
  1. In time. 
    • Make best effort to do the notification before the family sees it on the news or Social Media or viral on WhatsApp. 
    • Get to the point. Don’t drag it out. 
    • Say something like, “I’m sorry, your husband was in an auto accident tonight. He died while paramedics were attempting to revive him.” Then give details as indicated.

I do understand that the media will defensively claim that they are “just doing their job” – however, I do feel that in wanting to be the first one with a “scoop” – they should first be sensitive to humanitarian dignity and respect to the victim, deceased or the survivors or next of kin that are still clearly traumatized by the incident

I also sincerely hope that we can ensure that death or accident notifications to the next of kin can be done timely, with utmost due respect, by our officials and giving the news straight but most importantly with kindness…


  1. Don’t Release Names Until The Families Have Been Notified? by Brad Phillips.
  2. InPerson, In Time: Recommended Procedures for Death Notification by Sue Rutherford, Executive Director of the Arizona Trauma Intervention Program 
  3. Crisis Management Leadership Team: Fatality and Repatriation Management.

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Written By

Anneliza Zainal has been a communications practitioner in the corporates for more than 25 years before becoming a consultant, specialising in crisis communications and customer care. Apart from a Bachelor of Education, Teaching of English as a Second Language (TESL), she is also an accredited NLP Practitioner (ABNLP), Time Line Therapy® Practitioner, Master Class Educator (BKI) & certified HRDF Trainer. Follow her on Linkedin.

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