Why ‘death knocks’ are an essential part of the journalist’s toolkit to find out the truth in a world of fake news…and how police are doing the jobs regional newspapers use to do…

Grenfell_Tower_fire_(wider_view)

Journalists were criticised for approaching the relatives of the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster, but so-called ‘death knocks’ are an important way of telling a truthful story.

Where angels fear to tread…it is with some trepidation that I have decided to write about the unfortunately named ‘death knock’.

The subject is high on the agenda after the terror attacks in Manchester, London and the fire at Grenfell Tower flats.

Journalists have been criticised for even considering door knocking the relatives of the victims. It is because of this that I have considered for sometime the merits of writing this blog for fear of recriminations.

But, it has to be debated.
Dominic Ponsford, editor if the Press Gazette has been given a bit of a kicking by critics who say his attitude of ‘it’s ok to door knock’ to be out of kilter with the way people are thinking in this, read his article.
Like Dominic, what I can say is that door knocking is just about the toughest professional experience a journalist can have.
However, it can also be the most rewarding.
You may now think I have already stepped across the line by saying that, it could appear callous.
What I mean is that from my experience, many families who have lost a loved one are often happy to talk to a stranger about the death of someone who is near to them.
Dare I say that it is actually a cathartic experience for many of them because, simply, it is just too difficult/traumatic to talk to another member of their family.
I hated the thought of doing death knocks and even today the first one I ever did is a clear memory.
Asked by the newsdesk to talk to a family about the loss of their teenage son I drove round for almost an hour before plucking up courage to knock on the door.
The angst wasn’t required because I was welcomed in and spent an hour listening to the story about of their teenage son. There were tears and laughter as his life unfolded before me.
A few days later they rang to thank me for the report, telling me it was a beautiful tribute.
When I was a reporter on the Express and Star, Wolverhampton, I was asked to door knock the family of a lad who had been murdered.
After spending 10 minutes plucking up the courage to knock, I was left speechless for a few seconds when they berated me for not having turned up sooner, they actually had been expecting me.
I walked out with a wonderful tribute and two bags of pick-up pictures, three of them housed in ornate gold frames.
When I worked at the Derby Telegraph I met the kindly Neil Kerr, Ripley district reporter.
The legend was that he had never failed on a death knock. Even to this day, I’m not sure how true this was, but I certainly never knew of a time when he didn’t come back with the story.
Neil was an old-fashioned district reporter, well-known in the area and respected for his faithful reporting. Families expected Neil to be at council meetings, in the courts, at summer fairs and door knocking.
The humour surrounding why he always came back with the story was based around the fact that people just thought he was from the Co-op undertakers.
However, it was the fact that he was known for telling the truth and that he had a winning way about him. He would knock on the door and simply say, ‘it’s Neil from the Telegraph, pop the kettle on, I’ve come to have a chat about xxxxx’ and across the threshold he went.
Dominic mentions a report by Liverpool John Moores University which actually suggests that journalists hard-pressed for time are using social media to pick up tributes leaving the bereaved families unhappy with the outcome of what is written.
I would argue that death knocks are more important than at any other time in journalism. Why you may ask?
The answer is that in this world surrounded by fake or unverified news, or controlled news from the authorities, we need to do everything in our power to get to the root of the story.
It is too easy to accept a bland press release from the police about a sudden death. That’s not our job, just to take it and not check it.
A lot of the public do expect to have their story in a local newspaper. They expect reporters to go to them to check the facts, not just lift from social media or copy from a press release.
If media organisations are serious about telling the story fairly and accurately, they really have an obligation to knock on the door.
Of course, to those outside the profession, a ‘death knock’ might seem outrageous and heartless, but there are many working practices that happen in other professions which to those looking in seem odd.
If the families of the victims of the Grenfell fire hadn’t been able to tell their story, where would we be now?
Certainly, the pressure brought by these interviews, or door knocks, has helped to tell not only the story before us but the story behind the story, the ticking time-bomb of a disaster waiting to happen.
For those who worry about door knocking, they should be reassured that journalists adhere to the Editors’ Code, here are the sections:
3. *Harassment

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.

4. 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.

In the end, for those who don’t like the idea of door knocks, they will never change their minds. But if these are the same people who want the truth, maybe, just maybe, they will think again.

A final thought on another matter. I admit I have a bit of inside knowledge on this, but it concerns me deeply that a court case I’m about to describe was reported in this manner.

I’m told by a close friend that they were looking out for a court case involving a member of their family.

It was a nasty stabbing incident at a time in Birmingham when knife-crime is high on the news agenda.

My friend tells me the court story appeared on the police press web site first and then an hour later on the Birmingham Mail web site and later the front page of the Sutton Observer and on its web site.

What concerns me is that it would appear that no news organisation was in court. The police reported it online, of course there was no mitigation, and it was lifted with a few tweaks by the two newspapers.

West Midlands Police, like so many other forces, have clearly taken to covering the news that newspapers can no longer cover.

However, more worryingly, is that if a reporter had been in court they would have surely challenged the order prohibiting the naming of these youngsters.

This case was of such significance that naming them was an important part of the judicial system in ensuring that justice was seen to have been done.

Instead, we have a bland, one-sided version of events, copy and pasted for wider publication.

There probably is a decent follow-up story about the victim who lost a kidney, his spleen and was left permanently deaf in his left ear.

But with the failure to life the ban, who wants a story about an anonymous victim?

While I appreciate the staffing issues of regional newspapers more than most, you can’t help but feel rather sad.

Here are the stories for comparison:

West Midlands police version:

Sutton Observer:

Birmingham Mail: 

 

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Why Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press editors have embraced pleas by The Samaritans to report suicides with greater sensitivity

Conference

Keith Perch, Head of Journalism at the University of Derby, opened the conference which tackled the issue on how best to report suicides in the media.

The editors sat quietly and pondered the question from the back of the room. ‘Why’, said the man ‘do you have to report suicides at all? You don’t report the fact that someone has died of a heart attack’, he added.

It was an uncomfortable question for many journalists, do we really need to tell the story of someone who takes their own life?

One editor I know has already decided not to cover all suicide inquests, but only the ones he considers are in the public interest.

Of course, public interest can cover a multitude of sins, but at least there’s an acknowledgement that there’s an issue in reporting suicides and this guidance allows time to consider publication or not.

This week I attended a conference at the University of Derby, there were around 30 editors there from Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press.

The point? To raise awareness over the dangers of reporting suicides, which can often lead to copy cat incidents.

Obviously, the media is not being asked to stop reporting the deaths, just be careful.

The Samaritans offer a best practice guide to the media and it has a hotline where its staff are willing to discuss the content of a story prior to publication.

Similarly, the Editors’ Code offers advice to journalists when reporting suicides which is based around not putting in too much information about method of death.

As Editor-in-Chief and deputy editor of the Stoke Sentinel I was faced with numerous issues surrounding the reporting of suicides. Two stood out.

One inquest involved the death of a man from carbon monoxide poisoning. The paper was reported by the charity Papyrus to the defunct Press Complaints Commission for breach of the Editors’ Code by giving too much detail.

Did we overstep the mark? Debatable. I argued and proved that we had not printed a huge amount of information which I detailed to the PCC, but what I still ponder today is perhaps whether there was too much information in the article.

Now, I’m sure that I would have removed even more information from the original article because the ground has shifted.

I wasn’t proud of being accused of putting in too much detail, this wasn’t a gung-ho attitude from me or the editorial team, but the matter did make me think twice when faced with similar dilemmas in later years.

There is a line in the sand as to how much can be reported, but drawing it accurately can be hard. There is a grey area between putting enough information in to tell the story fairly and putting in too much detail which could have repercussions.

Another issue I had was a number of suicides on a rural section of railway. We had what would be described as a cluster. For me, five was too many in a short space of time.

This figure rose to nine deaths in under two years and The Sentinel came in for a lot of criticism for reporting the deaths.

At first we reported the inquests, but as concern grew and local communities started to feel unhappy at the situation, we asked for something to be done to prevent what was happening.

It was through this campaigning that the Samaritans became actively involved within the communities and with the newspaper and certain safety measures such as new fencing and CCTV cameras were put up on the stretch of line.

The result is, as far as I know, that there has not been a suicide on this stretch of line for several years. If we hadn’t raised the issue would more people have died?

On the flip side, was it because of the reporting that there were nine deaths? Reflecting on this time, we were careful on the reporting and despite this the incidents continued to happen.

It was only after we took action with the help of the railway authorities and the Samaritans that the deaths stopped.

However, one of the growing issues today is the response on social media to suicides, particularly the death of a teenager.

The outpouring of grief is difficult to report. Sorry, that’s wrong, it’s not difficult, the difficulty is getting it right. It is all too easy to lift the social media quotes and build a story around that.

How often do you see words like ‘another angel in heaven’ followed by ‘we’ll be with you in heaven soon.’

The sentiment that someone will join their friend in heaven soon shouldn’t be taken literally, but often impressionable children may just do that.

Also, a lot of social media almost glamorises suicide, this is a long distance from the reality.

The response on sites such as Facebook look easy pickings for journalists attempting to get a reaction to the death, but the media has to be careful how it uses this information and reflects the outpouring of grief.

Simple phrases like ‘another angel in heaven’ pulls on the heart-strings and can entice vulnerable people to believe that suicide, wrongly, has some sort of romance about it. It hasn’t.

Most senior editorial staff believe more than ever that they have to be careful in reporting suicides.

One of our journalism students at the University of Derby, Eleanor Crone, in her research on reporting suicides in The Sun and the Nottingham Post ,showed that the press has become more alert to its responsibilities.

But being careful in reporting suicides and the drive to get page views, provides editors with dilemmas.

Editors know that they have a responsibility to report some suicides that are in the public interest.

But the pressure to ensure they fulfil their requirements in getting an audience will inevitably lead to them having to make difficult decisions about pushing the boundaries to maximise page views.

Some of you reading this may gasp in horror, but the reality is that good court copy, whether from an inquest, crown or magistrates court does well online.

And undoubtedly, in the pressure cooker world of an editorial room where staff are forever watching the audience stats, that fine line of reporting responsibly or chasing audience may become blurred.

This isn’t just something I believe, it is also what a number of editors talked about on the day of the conference.

On the flip-side, the other point made to me was that often the reason for not covering inquests was not based on a moral opinion but more down to lack of resources.

There is also real audience pressure, not just the stats.

With the world in conversation it is impossible to control certain web platforms from having a full and frank discussion about a suicide.

They are not governed or feel responsible to abide by the advice on reporting suicides.

This often leads to criticism of the main media for failing to report as much information and accusations of a cover up.

Once again, more pressure for an editor to decide how much can and cannot be written.

What we do know is that at least the debate is ongoing and this can only help editorial staff to make better, more informed decisions in the future when it comes to covering suicides.

Just one last thought, it seems this is often forgotten. Only the coroner can decide if a death is a suicide, the press should not speculate.