You knock on the door and hold your breath. At first nothing. Perhaps they’re not in? Please say they’re not in. You consider turning back up the garden path when you hear the latch and someone answers. You are faced with a bereaved spouse, child or parent. What do you say?
A first ‘death knock’ is perhaps the single most daunting task facing a new journalist. The expectation from editors is high but the chances of success are anything but. Approaching grieving relatives on the worst day of their lives is a frightening prospect. Many consider it the worst kind of exploitative journalism. And yet on any given day, somewhere in the country, reporters are chapping on doors in the hope of a scoop.
For many years I wrote for the Press and Journal in Scotland’s fishing capital Peterhead. When a ship sank or a car crashed one of us would be sent to knock a door. But despite how often this task reared its head, and even though I’ve written for four different newspapers, I have never been formally trained on how to tackle it.
Why Do We Knock?
Let’s be clear – death knocks are difficult and can go terribly wrong. When a trawler sank in the North Sea in 2014 it was my job to knock the family home of the skipper only hours after the news had broken – a knock which ended with a threat of assault. On another occasion, investigating a young man missing presumed dead, I came home to find a death threat waiting in my own inbox.
A failed knock can leave you shaken. Sometimes it was hard to see the value in what I was doing. But when I was invited in, it was also an opportunity to tell a story with real humanity. Understanding the news value of a death knock is the first step to doing them well.
There’s no mistaking that death knocks aren’t often looked favourably upon by the public. After the revelation that the News of the World had hacked Milly Dowler’s voicemail after she went missing, they were lumped in with illicit practices where the press will ‘stop at nothing’. But research by Dr Sallyanne Duncan from the University of Strathclyde and Jackie Newton from Liverpool John Moores University revealed families actually approached by journalists often don’t agree.
‘It Was As If My Son’s Death Counted For Nothing’
Although knocking a family is daunting, not including them in a piece about a loved one shuts them out of the public response to their loss. Newton and Duncan found families were upset certain deaths are considered more newsworthy than others.
When a person dies in an accident or a crime the police tell families they may be contacted by the press. Liaison officers may put out family statements and release a picture of the deceased. So when journalists don’t turn up it can cause greater anguish. The mother of one murder victim said: “It was as if my son’s death counted for nothing.”
Death knocks give grieving families a chance to pay tribute to their loved ones, particularly in the regional press. When I knocked Press and Journal readers they more often than not welcomed me in. For their loved one to be in a local publication they respected was fitting.
But more than a comfort for families, knocks are an opportunity for loved ones to make a difference. They can serve as a warning to others, an opportunity to raise awareness or money for a cause, or expose illegality and negligence. In other words – there is a public interest.
The Anatomy Of A Death Knock – Just How Do You Do It?
So, with an understanding of why we knock let’s consider how to do it. Before you go be 100 per cent sure the family have been informed of the death. It is not your job to break that news.
After the Manchester Arena bombing, the family of Martyn Hett, who died in the attack, rightfully condemned the media’s intrusion after revealing reporters knocked before his death had been officially confirmed. Never let the scramble to break news trump your duty to get it right.
Whenever possible speak face-to-face. Press and Journal policy was to always knock rather than call. Using social media – the increasingly common digital death knock – was frowned upon.
Similarly, it’s important to dress accordingly. Picture what your head teacher would say: ‘Do up that top button’ and ‘straighten that tie’. It’s also important to carry yourself professionally. Creeping up the garden path is doing nobody any favours.
Nothing You Can Say Will Change Their Mind – Nor Should It
I found it helpful to plan what I would say and it became second nature: “Hello, my name is Joshua King and I’m a reporter from the Press and Journal. We’ve heard about your loved one and firstly want to offer our condolences. If you would like, we could publish a tribute in the paper.”
That’s quite a formal approach, but I wasn’t from the area and have quite a well-to-do accent. My colleague in our district office was from that community and spoke with a broad local accent. He found a more familiar tone worked, for me it would have seemed disingenuous.
Know your IPSO Code
Intrusion into grief or shock
In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.
i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.
ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.
iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.
One of three things will happen next – they will say yes, no, or not now. In my experience, nothing you say will change their mind and nor should it. If they decline and you know you will definitely be running a story say so. It is important they are not surprised when they open their paper or turn on the TV.
If they say ‘not now’ leave your contact details. A business card is more appropriate than a scrap of paper with a scrawled phone number. The ‘not now’ response is often best – the opportunity to consider what they want to say will give a more rounded story.
If asked to leave do so immediately and never try a second time. You may or may not think death knocks are unethical but harassment undoubtedly is. Know your IPSO Code. If the person is not in or not answering the door it’s a judgement call whether to wait or leave your contact details. Sometimes you know other reporters have already been turned away, but as a trainee reporter, there was no way I was going to tell my editor I hadn’t even tried.
How To Conduct A Grief Interview
What I don’t think I was prepared for at first, however, was for someone to actually say yes. Don’t let that happen to you. Assume the family will say yes even though they probably won’t.
More than ever, ask open-ended questions and do not rush. It can take a while for a grieving person to open up. If they offer tea or food (there always seems to be an abundance of food about when a person dies) take it. Let them talk and just listen.
Although it may feel natural to say ‘I understand how you feel’ or to share an experience of your own, it’s best not to. People grieve differently and their pain is personal.
Whatever you do, be clear how the story will read and what the tone is. Don’t blindside a family with an unexpected angle.
They may also ask to see your copy before publication, so know your newsdesk’s policy in advance. The Press and Journal’s policy, for example, was never to do this with any interviewee. In terms of photographs, you will either need to ask the family for a ‘collect’ image or source one from the police.
For you, a knock it is a difficult day at the office. But, in a few days time it will feel like a distant memory. For the person on the other side of that door, however, this the worst day of their life and they may never forget the way you treat them.
If you take nothing else away, just remember this: death knocks never get easier but you can be better at them. You owe it to those you approach to be at your best. So take a deep breath and knock that door. It will be hard but it may be the most worthwhile story you ever tell.
Joshua is currently a freelance newspaper and magazine journalist. He has worked in the newsrooms of the Press and Journal, The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday as well as writing for The Big Issue, i-on and Tabletop Gaming magazines. A former member of the NCTJ Student Council, Joshua is now writing a novel and feeding his Twitter addiction at @JoshKingWrites.