Hacking book: why ‘death knocks’ are appreciated by the bereaved
Today’s extract from The phone hacking scandal: journalism on trial* is by Jackie Newton and Sallyanne Duncan who are worried that the Leveson inquiry may overlook the value of “death knocks”.
They argue that many encounters between journalists and the bereaved are positive – particularly in the regions. Their views are largely based on their own research…
We consulted 49 reporters from the regional press and six editors or senior journalists who had newsroom responsibilities about using social media in death knock stories.
We also conducted 24 interviews with bereaved groups and families. Their comments were illuminating and went a long way to dispelling the myth that all journalists are uncaring, unprincipled hacks and that all bereaved families want to be left alone.
The death knock remains an important journalistic activity in the digital age. Reporters from our study believe it is a key part of the news process, offers the potential for good quality human interest stories, and can be a platform to warn others of dangers in society.
The therapeutic value of assisting the bereaved relatives to pay tribute to their loved one and the community’s entitlement to be informed of events in their area are also identified by journalists as a significant validation…
These instincts were borne out by many of the family members interviewed, with one “expert” witness, a bereaved parent who now counsels others, saying:
“To me there’s always a story behind the headlines and if that story is told in a proper manner with compassion and accuracy between the person with the pen and the person telling the story I think it’s a good marriage.
It’s a good thing to do because it can also help families being able to talk about their loved one.”
But there is an emotional cost to the journalist, particularly those who are inexperienced at dealing with grieving family members.
Therefore, it could be assumed that given the ready supply of emotive quotes, personal details and pictures available from social networking sites (SNS) it would seem that potentially journalists could get the necessary components of a death knock story without having to put themselves through a stressful visit to the family.
It may require them to enter an ethical grey area that shares some characteristics with phone hacking but enables them to avoid direct contact with the bereaved…
Some publications which have encouraged this approach have found themselves subject to the scrutiny of the Press Complaints Commission.
However, their contraventions appear to be exceptions rather than the rule. The research for this chapter showed that the surveyed reporters did not appear to merely take comments and pictures from these sites as a matter of course.
Instead, it was evident they used them to source those who knew the deceased or to read tributes for research purposes, with the aim of gaining access to the family.
However, as one digital editor noted this should be the starting point. He said: “It can help with the initial contact if you are saying to them, ‘We’ve seen all these great comments on Facebook. Would you mind if we used them?'”
All the journalists in the study recognised the importance of interviewing the family and none would shirk from this task…
Using the deceased’s profile was deemed to be a last resort when all other attempts to speak to close relatives had failed, or as a means of adding to the story, rather than an easy dodge for the journalist. One local newspaper reporter said:
“Approaching the family is the most uncomfortable, awkward and difficult task… however inevitable and unavoidable… Headlines in the paper may often be the first ‘real’ encounter the bereaved family experience from the tragedy at hand.
Sensational headlines become the brutal reality before they themselves have come to terms with their loss.
However, relying on friends (when you are unaware of their relationship to the deceased), as opposed to the family, could give a tainted, prejudiced and misconstrued view of the subject.”
A regional newspaper reporter added: “As a reporter your aim is to produce a story and if this can only be done by using information from a social networking site then that is what you do.
“I would still make every effort to contact the family concerned by phone or via a death knock.”
Paradoxically, respondents had mixed views about the quality of information and quotes they got from friends, whether in interviews or taking comments from the sites.
Most thought SNS-sourced quotes were not as good or much the same as they get from interviewing those close to the deceased.
None thought they were better and all of them would prefer to visit the family. One evening newspaper reporter said:
“The quotes from speaking to a family in person are always better. You build up more of a rapport, better conversation and trust. More always comes out of face-to-face interviews than phone/email etc”…
…Many of the relatives interviewed were concerned about
unauthorised use of social media material in a more general sense.
Two interviewees worried that it may lead to less direct contact with the family, and one woman whose brother had been murdered felt that reporters rely too much on social media and sometimes fail to check the accuracy of information:
“They’ll look around on Facebook and Twitter and some of that stuff is just lies. Then the poor family has to answer all these questions about stuff that didn’t happen.”
Others had taken the decision to tell their story themselves through tributes on the websites of support groups, fulfilling a need to find a public context for their loss.
Although they were happy for that material to reach a wider audience, they still felt they should be given warning if it was to appear in the mainstream media.
A significant area of contention appears to be the use of material that is in the public domain. Journalists mostly believe that this is freely available for them to use whilst the public take a different view.
Generally, journalists said they did not think that it was intrusive to use comments from a deceased’s site if the profile is set to public, stating that the individual has chosen to publish details of their life on the internet…
The deceased may well have chosen to keep their site public but it is unlikely they gave much thought to it being accessed by anyone other than their friends and family, whereas tributes left at the scene of a death are placed there in the accepted recognition that they are likely to be read by others…
By believing in the value of interviewing the family the surveyed journalists enable the relatives to maintain a level of control over the story, something that is important to the bereaved, which may be denied to them when material is taken predominantly from the deceased’s SNS, unless of course the journalist seeks consent from the family to reproduce quotes and pictures.
One evening newspaper reporter said: “I think most people would prefer we actually doorstepped them in person – that way they can choose how much or how little they want to say.”
Many families expect to be contacted and may even be prepared by the police for media attention…
A former news editor who was interviewed for this study said: “I’ve taken calls on the newsdesk from people who have complained that their family tragedy didn’t receive coverage”…
A long-serving news editor in the north west was fond of saying: after a tragic death families in Liverpool expect “the undertaker, the priest, and the Liverpool Echo”…
Having a journalist turn up in person and deal honestly and sympathetically with the story is preferable to the SNS alternative, which tends to alienate the families from the account of the death.
One bereaved relative said she would always advise families to participate in the story: “I would say speak to the press, but always, always ask them to understand the pain you are going through.”
Tomorrow: Tony Harcup wonders whether a ‘conscience clause’ could help to protect and enhance ethical journalism.
*The phone hacking scandal: journalism on trial, edited by Richard Lance Keeble and John Mair, is published by Abramis