The Death Knock

by Hannah

In July, Cory wrote about the excesses of the press during the endgame of the hunt for Raoul Moat.  Recently, there has been a renewed focus on journalists behaving badly, after freelance journalist Chris Wheal experienced the other side of reporting following the death of his nephew, Jamie Bray. 

Jamie, who was nine, died on the 13th July after becoming entangled in a rope swing after a fall.  Chris Wheal describes on his blog how his sister and her family then had to endure a string of journalists ringing their house and turning up at the door asking questions.  He has since started a campaign to change the way that journalists cover sudden deaths and also to educate the public as to how to handle the media. 

He proposes that bereaved families be issued a leaflet advising them of the likely reactions of journalists and offering help in handling this attention.  This suggestion was fairly uncontroversial.  He also suggested families be able to communicate to news organisations the level of attention they would be willing to receive and that journalists be bound to respect that decision, and that press enquiries should be pooled to one, experienced, journalist.  Currently, the situation is that a family can be approached at home by numerous journalists from different papers and this so-called “death knock” is seen as a rite of passage for the most junior reporter in the office.  As one journalist commented under Chris Wheal’s first blog post:

 It is a sick part of our trade that a death knock is seen as some kind of test for trainee and junior reporters to prove themselves. It is seen as a badge of honour to go and intrude on a families grief, with warm congratulations given to any journalist who comes back to the office with good quotes and a picture. Failure was not an option for my old news editors – if you didn’t get anything, you were sent back until you did – or risked a shouting down for not being “good enough” at your job

It’s apparent that journalists cannot uniformly be trusted to behave with basic decency.  Some of the responses to this suggestion under the original blog posts and elsewhere demonstrated the sense of entitlement amongst some journalists.  At Roy Greenslade’s blog on the Guardian website, commenter “substandard” said:

 As for the blogger’s suggestions…I’ll admit I didn’t read them all. But the idea of having one journalist represent all of us is ridiculous. Imagine if a PA reporter came back and told a news editor “sorry, the old girl won’t speak”. Any news editor worth his salt would immediately send his own reporter to try and get a different response. There were several occasions when a family would speak to me when they had already told other reporters to sod off. They have to trust the person knocking on their door. Some reporters are betting at earning that trust than others.

This idea that the family might change their mind about press involvement, or even worse, be persuaded to talk by a journalist from a different organisation, came up a lot.  I’m afraid it’s not an argument with which I have a lot of patience.  It may well be true, but it doesn’t justify pestering people who have just lost a loved one on the off-chance that they might give in.

On Chris Wheal’s latest blog post someone has written:

Do you think if you had acted differently yourself and known how to handle the media, your sister wouldn’t have found herself in the position she faced herself in? Had you put a statement out using the Press Association and asked the PCC to become involved from the off, I believe your sister wouldn’t have been bothered in the way she was.  It seems to me that had you yourself acted differently and known the way the media worked in a situation like this, a lot of what happened could have been easily avoided.

The responsibility is placed on the public to handle the press in the correct way rather than have journalists moderate there own behaviour.  This is pretty much exactly the response that the Press Complaints Commission gave when questioned, albeit somewhat less brutally.  Their published information on media attention following a death requires families to be proactive in approaching the PCC to ask for restraint from media organizations which then may or may not be granted.  In fact, the latest campaign doesn’t deviate significantly from this fundamental assumption.  The responsibility is still placed on families to communicate their preferred level of engagement and give over enough information to satisfy the press. 

In my opinion it is not the public’s responsibility to be media savvy.  Instead it should be expected that journalists exhibit a certain standard of behaviour.  Chris Wheal draws attention to the difference between the PCC’s editor’s code which states that:

In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively.

And the stronger National Union of Journalists code which states:

A journalist does nothing to intrude into anybody’s private life, grief or distress unless justified by overriding consideration of the public interest.

I would favour the latter standard.  It should be completely unacceptable to cold-call grieving relatives.  By all means, families should be issued with a leaflet to explain the process, but, preferably, all enquiries should be mediated through the police press office or, if they really must, journalists should put a card through the door offering their condolences and leaving a contact number in case relatives want to talk.

The ultimate problem is that there are no real consequences for journalists who breach their own codes of good behaviour.  As Jonathan Coad and Carl Gardner outline, this really needs to change.  Commenter “donalpain,” under Anne Wollenberg’s response in the Guardian puts it best:

“Public need advice on handling press”

Quite possibly, but there is a greater need for the press to have advice on handling the public.

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2 Responses to The Death Knock

  1. Cylux says:

    There were several occasions when a family would speak to me when they had already told other reporters to sod off. They have to trust the person knocking on their door. Some reporters are betting at earning that trust than others.

    And now a quote from page 57 of Flat Earth News by Nick Davies:

    The dad hangs up: the last time we wrote about his son, we exaggerated the story. The desk tell me to call him back and threaten to run the story with or without his comment. Reluctantly, he gives me a quote.

    I question substandard’s use of the phrase “earning that trust”. Did they earn their trust? Or did they threaten it out of the poor sods.

    • Hannah says:

      Exactly! Alternatively, the family might have said anything to be left alone. As an analogy, you might keep pestering someone to sleep with you, and they might eventually give in, but that doesn’t retrospectively justify your actions, in fact, completely the opposite! I suppose the one thing we can draw from the comment is that the press won’t adhere to any sort of standards unless they’re made to.

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