"Death knocks" are controversial, but please don’t think of journalists as ghouls

Journalists are very likely to face criticism in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy, just as they did in the aftermath of the Manchester and London Bridge terrorism attacks. Why? Because they will be seeking information about the dead and the bereaved. Why? Because they believe that providing such information is a key part of their public interest remit? Why? Because informing the public is their raison d'être.

We know that the critics will view those self-serving arguments as hollow. They contend that contacting people immediately after someone close to them has died serves no genuine purpose. It is ghoulish, disrespectful and lacks sympathy for those who are stricken with grief.

More to the point, they ask: where is the public interest in publishing material that is inevitably aimed at provoking an emotional response among readers? Surely it only satisfies one of the basest of human appetites: morbid curiosity.

Worse still, by appealing to that curiosity, editors are clearly motivated by a desire to sell more newspapers. Commerce trumps pity. Publishing intimate articles about the newly deceased is unacceptable, little more than a form of grief porn.

We journalists are well used to such criticism and we would be less than human if we had not raised similar questions ourselves. I think it’s fair to say that no reporter relishes carrying out what are known in the trade as “death knocks”. No-one pleads with a news editor to do them.

I recall asking my first editor how I could justify turning up on the doorstep of a woman whose 11-year-old son had drowned the night before in a gravel pit.

In what I later came to recognise as the stock-in-trade response, he said “the people” would want to know why and how it happened. It would reinforce warnings of the dangers of the pits and also open up a debate about the lack of safety measures.

As for the mother, it was likely that she would wish to ensure her son’s death was publicised because, note the black irony, it would act as a recognition of the worth of her son’s life. He would not die in secret, unknown and unheralded.

By talking to the woman, I would be able to verify the facts provided by the duty sergeant at the police station and the ambulance driver. Anyway, how would she feel if I wrote a story about her son without talking to her? Would that not be lacking in respect?

However, he said, if she did not want to speak to me then I should accept it and walk away. That seemed reasonable enough until a colleague added sharply: “And don’t forget to pick up a picture of the lad”.

It transpired that the woman, having been advised by an undertaker who was friendly to our newspaper, did agree to talk. And she also handed over a treasured photograph.

That instance was replicated several times over during my reporting career. Initial shock, and a measure of disgust, at seeing a hack on the doorstep usually tended to dissipate.

Sensitive approaches, often via the undertaker or the police, did pay off. Very rarely was a door slammed in my face, although I have never forgotten the look of loathing from the brother of a man who had died after falling from a crane. He saw no merit in speaking to me and wanted me to know it.

One important factor. My reporting experiences were on a local weekly paper in an era (the 1960s) where it enjoyed a relatively large circulation. The title, which had only one major rival, was generally well liked, even by non-buyers. It was close to the community.

Local paper relationships with their audiences were, and are, different from those of national newspaper readerships. Scores of reporters and photographers are deployed to cover big national tragedies. Death knock singular becomes death knocks plural.

Editors have generally responded positively to requests from broadcasting and press regulators to create a reporting pool, as they did following the 1996 Dunblane school massacre.

Even so, the nature of press competition and the range of freelancers unaware (or unheeding) of pool arrangements means that the bereaved do get several visits which, understandably, causes distress.

Controlling “the pack” remains a problem in an increasingly fragmented media world, especially one where everyone is a potential journalist. It is impossible to hold a regulator responsible for every individual. 

To add to the difficulty, people nowadays routinely compromise their own privacy. Social media postings enable newspapers to gather a great deal of material, often of a quite intimate nature, and some of which may previously have been unknown to relatives. Should reporters ignore that?

Reporting a tragedy only in outline – the numbers involved, say, but without any coverage of the victims – would be an extraordinary editorial mistake. Human interest walks hand in hand with public interest.

I need to stress that reporters (and editors) are not ghouls. In my experience of newsrooms when disasters occur, the journalists working on the story exhibit the same response as the people they serve: distress, sympathy, anxiety, anger and, yes, tears. There is far less cynicism than movie and TV portrayals of our trade tend to suggest.

It cannot be denied that there have been instances of intrusion into grief, most often unintentionally. But in my lifetime, the situation has changed for the better. The advent of the Editors’ Code of Practice in 1990 made a difference.

Over the years, that Code’s clause about intrusion into grief has been taken to heart by most journalists. Looking down the list of complaints to IPSO, I note that very few involve alleged breaches of that clause.

Again, there have been specific cases where reporters have overstepped the mark and, rightly, people have complained about them.

But this reminds me of a profound cultural change in society over the course of my newspaper career. Down the years, members of the public have become much more conscious of their rights.

People did not complain about a whole range of things in the 1960s as they do now. They accepted their fate in a way that would be inconceivable today. In truth, reporters got away with a great deal of bad behaviour in the past that would no longer be countenanced.

The change should not spell the end of “death knocks”. But it does mean that reporters who were once told by their editors to “walk tall” in public, should show greater humility when going about their tasks. 

 *The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not IPSO*

Note from IPSO: We operate a 24 hour emergency harassment helpline and can provide advice to anyone who feels they are being harassed by a journalist. IPSO operates a system of private advisory notices, which enable us to make the industry, or individual titles, aware of a concern that the Code has been or may be breached, or to communicate a specific request to the industry, such as to stop telephoning an individual.

More details can be seen here.