One of the reasons I’m so interested in the death knock is that it has sounded the death knell for too many promising careers.
Former student, Ashley Straw, isn’t the first journalist to cite such interviews with the bereaved as his reason for quitting news journalism. There have been many before him and if things don’t change there’ll be plenty after him.
Consider this from former reporter Geraldine Hayward, writing in the Press Gazette:
“I’d invite myself into your grief, trample around your tortured soul, grab a photograph, and zip back to the office to bang out 300 words of tastefully titillating obituary. You'd think that after repeatedly barging into bereaved relatives' houses, demanding photos of the deceased, and staying until I got at least one killer quote (pardon the pun) out of the living people, that most of these death knocks would stick in my memory. But they don't. I worry that I may be a psychopath.”
From this, and Ashley’s own experience, you begin to see why I’m so concerned about the effects of death knocks on young reporters, not to mention the families they visit. It can leave reporters emotionally drained, and with a nagging feeling of guilt they just don’t deserve.
I’ve been researching this area with Dr Sallyanne Duncan of Strathclyde University for a couple of years now, surveying and interviewing editors, working journalists, journalism educators and former students.
There is much about the death knock we would like to see subtly changed, and we’re working on that at the moment. (Watch this space!)
But in the meantime, here are a few important reasons why the death knock is a valid practice:
1. Experience tells us that the majority of families actually want to speak to the media. After all, it’s their story – not yours.
2. It gives you access to the people who actually count in the story - and you can be confident you have the facts.
3. It puts the family at the very heart of the story, sometimes to great effect. Look at how the parents of Rhys Jones and Anthony Walker drove much of the coverage of those tragic cases.
Of course, there are degrees of difficulty with death knocks and other such intrusive reporting. Some victims are arguably more deserving of a tribute than others, and some families just won’t want to talk to you.
The amount of control you have over the story can also make a difference to the way you feel about it. If you are working as a staff reporter, or as a freelance for one organization, you are more likely to have at least some degree of influence over how the story is treated. Ashley wasn’t in this position, as he was working for an agency selling on their stories to numerous outlets. But even in his situation, reporters who behave decently and relay information honestly should not feel guilt. There’s nothing shameful about approaching bereaved families to give them the opportunity to speak.
Perhaps there is something a little more shameful about dodging that responsibility to save your own feelings – and nicking quotes from Facebook instead.
By Jackie Newton, Journalism Lecturer
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