Deathknocks

Deathknocks.

That’s the term used in newspapers when a  reporter is sent round to the house of a bereaved family to get some quotes and, ideally, a photo.

Before you all start clucking and muttering Leveson under your breath, you’ve all read a moving story of someone who’s died, along with a nice family photo. Most likely it was collected via a deathknock, so don’t tut too loudly.

Deathknock is a bleak word; it’s partly the black humour of a journalists; we deal with death and you have to make light of it otherwise you’d be the one sat in the corner nursing a bottle of whisky (and we’ve had reporters like that).

It’s also an unpleasant thing to do. Most reporters don’t like it, and have to cope with it in a variety of ways, so a bleak word is needed from our point of view, too.  I always hated them. Other reporters saw them as no worse than going to do a golden wedding.

Editors vary in approach to deathknocks. There are some who won’t take no for answer. When a reporter comes back and says the family don’t want to speak, they’ll say it’s not good enough and send the reporter back out.

At the other end of the spectrum is me; we try to avoid deathknocks and will quietly try to contact the family through the undertaker to see if they want anything in the paper. If they say no, we don’t bother them. Quite often we get a letter to the editor paying tribute, and that gives us a story.

This isn’t to say we’re completely soft: quite often a family wants nothing in the paper at all, not even a death notice or funeral, but if we think it warrants a story, we’ll do one if, say, it’s a public figure.

If a reporter does go out and knock on some doors, good for them, but they’re not expected to (most of the time – there are always exceptions).

I can’t decide whether this is good or bad journalism. Many editors would say it was bad: we have to gather news, good  and bad, and sometimes unpleasant things have to be done. On the other hand, it’s an intrusion into private grief.

I’ve worked in places where deathknocks become an arms race; competing newspapers each know the other will do the deathknock, and it’s a race to get there first. I’ve seen a paper turned away at the door and then use the notice of the funeral arrangements as a source of quotes, printing “the family told us . . .”

But deathknocks can be good for families – it’s part of the grieving process to talk about your loved one, and a reporter is a good listener who’ll let you get on with your favourite stories.

Still, we don’t do them, at least as a matter of routine. I don’t think you can call yourself a community newspaper and then behave like you have the right to ignore the wishes of people in the community, but it’s a highly debatable topic and I could be talking out of my hat.

Moreover, it’s difficult when you are part of the community. As we reported last week, a local restaurant owner was killed in a road accident and it was the talk of the town. Obviously we had to do a story, but: he was married into a family I knew slightly, because his mother-in-law (I think this is right) married into the family of one of my best friends from childhood.

One of his best friends was the father of a woman who works at the ## Chronicle. I play in a band with her husband and am Godfather to their child. I’m friendly with various other people in the social circle.

So: if I cause upset, I upset a lot of people close to me. You don’t get this at # #The Sun or even the ## Stoke Sentinel. And even if you do, there’s always someone to blame, “orders from above” or “it’s company policy”. I have no-one to pass the buck to.

Some of the people I know were so upset they didn’t want to talk to the press, but in the end we managed to get a story together, a tribute to the man who had died.

And after all this pussy-footing about, the Sentinel sent someone on a deathknock, fell lucky and got more information than we did.

Oh well. There’s nothing to be annoyed about or even have strong feelings over; that’s just the way it goes. I stuck with what I believed was right and you can’t go wrong doing that.

One thought on “Deathknocks”

  1. Good stuff Jeremy – sorry I’ve only just got round to reading it. There’s nothing worse than local papers turning their backs on their community links and pretending to be ‘tabloids’. Admittedly, some young journalists are hungry to the the sensational stuff to help them climb the career ladder. With deaths, it’s not always intrusive – sometimes family members seize the chance to open up to someone who is outside the family. However I agree it has to be sensitively handled from both the family and the reporter point of view.

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