A very British Death Knock: a good journo’s quest to honour the name in their notebook
Death Knocks were a regular part of my job as a journalist 30 years ago and provoke strong debate among readers and fellow journos even today. Here’s my view of what it was like to be on the other side of the front door.
DEATH Knocks. Terrible name. Terrible journalistic practice? I have done many.
A Death Knock was the one job most journalists dreaded, certainly when I was a roving reporter (and I mean real roving before the arrival of internet-friendly phones and social media could put you in touch with relevant contacts for your story).
In the late eighties when I was a journalist on a south-east-based newspaper, Death Knocks were a staple part of the job. Almost a rite of passage for any ‘serious’ journo. A way to not just take you out of your comfort zone, but pull you kicking and screaming out of it.
Still unsure what I’m talking about? Here’s Wikipedia’s explanation. Pay particular attention to the second paragraph:
“In journalism, the term Death Knock refers to the practice of journalists contacting people with a close relationship to a deceased individual, in an attempt to garner their thoughts and feelings regarding the death, and also gather other information.
The practice of Death Knocks, is often considered to be a negative aspect of journalism, but the exposure it brings has also been shown to sometimes be a comfort to bereaved individuals.”
The journalist stereotype
I wonder, how do you feel right now after reading this explanation? Does it only go towards reinforcing your negative view of journalists, horrible people intent on twisting the truth and capitalising on someone’s else’s misery to line their own pockets? And what do you think of me right now, knowing I did this kind of work for YEARS? Yes, really.
The journalist stereotype… I get it, I really do. It’s still portrayed on TV in popular dramas so it must be true, right? After all there were — and still are — individuals in the media intent on spreading malicious gossip, lies and preying on vulnerable people to swell their bank balance. There always have been. There always will be.
These people are not journalists. At least, they’re not journalists in my book. They fall short on every level — and I’m talking human-to-human here, not just in terms of good journalistic values.
Wiki’s interpretation I rather like.
‘A journalist is a person who collects, writes, or distributes news or other current information to the public. A journalist’s work is called journalism. A journalist can work with general issues or specialize in certain issues. However, most journalists tend to specialise, and by cooperating with other journalists, produce journals that span many topics. For example, a sports journalist covers news within the world of sports, but this journalist may be a part of a newspaper that covers many different topics.”
And that’s what I did. I collected, I wrote, I distributed news and current information, and that included the information I gained during a Death Knock.
Did that make me a bad person?
Some may say so. I hope not.
Respect for relatives
My specialist skill was talking to people whose loved one had died and reporting the facts alongside their feelings, their words, accurately and with the utmost respect for their relative.
You see, I firmly believe there are good journalists out there; the writers who strive to do their research, get their facts right, listen to their interviewees and give them a voice, all too often at times when they are in tremendous emotional pain and trauma and, sometimes, at a time when they have nowhere else to air their views.
So, what on earth does this have to do with Death Knocks you may ask?
Everything. And here’s why…
In my book, you can tell a lot about a journalist by how they approach a Death Knock.
So, please indulge me for a just a couple of minutes. Let me take you on one of those Death Knocks. This is based on one that happened during the early part of my career and has stayed with me ever since.
Death Knock Journey
My morning starts pretty much like any other. I arrive at the local police station and sit down with my regular contact, the desk sergeant. He goes through the Incident Book and tells me about an accident at a local race track.
A 36-year-old race marshal, husband and father of two, has been killed in an accident. I note the few details available down in my notebook, thank the DS and go back to the office. The one piece of information that stands out for me above everything else and stays with me on the drive back — this dead man has children the same age as my two nephews.
Back at my desk I call the race track and someone there confirms the man’s death. Through more research, including a check of the electoral roll, we have an address for the man and his family.
My news editor, armed with this news, directs me to leave the office and ‘go get the story’. I leave, grabbing my bag, notebook and pens and a map book of the area. No sat nav to guide me then, only knowledge of the local area — my local area, just a few miles from my home town.
As I head for the car, the first nerves start to kick in, and the adrenaline. Yes, I know it’s not pretty. Not the correct thing to say perhaps, but adrenaline was always the thing to drive me at this stage. After all, I had a job to do and I was determined to do it to the best of my ability.
With little traffic on the road, I could be at the address in just over 15 minutes. Not a lot of thinking time and I was thankful for that. Too much and I’d bottle it. Give into my nerves which told me to just drive around the area and then go back to the office, claiming the family ‘were out’ or ‘not answering their door’. All valid reasons. And who could blame them? Their world caving in by the second, why on earth would they want to open the door to me, a snooping journalist out for the sensational headline and the big byline.
Walking the path
Stomach now seriously churning, I park the car — as close to the address as I can, but only after a quick check of the area. If there’s any manoeuvering to do, better to do it now and leave the car in a position where I can leave quickly and easily if there’s any ‘trouble’.
After one last check of my notes and locking my car, I head up the path to the door. Now my heart is truly hammering in my chest. Like a million hack haters are lining up to pummel me into the ground. Why wouldn’t they? I wouldn’t blame them. In another time, another place I’d almost certainly be joining them. F*****g journalist scum.
Taking a ragged breath I search for a doorbell, or failing that, a door knocker. There are both. I pick the first option, press the bell and wait. Silence. I let out several shallow breaths in quick succession and then one slower, deeper one as the silence lengthens. No dog barks. Always a relief. (This was in the days before I discovered the joy of dog ownership).
I hope against hope that this is where it stops. No answer means my work is done. I can leave this place and let the family get on with their grieving in private. I can go back to the office, make a quick cuppa and get on with my day, crafting this accident report into a filler piece for page three, peppered with a standard police spokesman quote and not much more.
Perfect. Or is it?
You see, there’s part of me that rails against this thought. Is this wrong? Does this make me a heartless hack?
Without the words from this man’s grieving family, their story — a life — will be dismissed in just a few lines of text. A human who, just a few hours before, was living, breathing, being a dad, a husband and so much more. I know nothing about this man but I want to know more.
Name in a notebook
To me, at this point, he is just a name in my notebook. A man who died in an accident on a racetrack on a Sunday afternoon.
Who was he to those who knew him and loved him best? His life counts. His story counts. It demands so much more than a NIB (News in Brief — the 40 word stories that fill the edge of newspaper pages) and I want to give his family the chance to say what they want to say. To call it a ‘Tribute Piece’ sounds so crass, but a piece with their comments is this and so much more.
I wait for what seems like forever and then, just as I’m about to leave, the door opens a crack. A pair of tired, red eyes meet mine. I feel another brief pang of guilt for the intrusion, but carry on.
I gently introduce myself, offer my condolences and explain that we will be writing a story about their loved one based on the information we received from police. Then I ask if they would like to say anything.
This is the point when I wait for the door to be slammed in my face, for them to tell me to f**k off. Something that has only happened maybe on one, two occasions at most.
After what seems like forever a voice invites me in and I am now in their world. The world of the father, the husband, the race marshal.
As the door opens a woman roughly the same age as my sister, still in her dressing gown and eyes red and swollen ‘greets’ me, her pain so powerful I can feel it in the air around us. A knot in my stomach tightens along with the one in my throat. Now there is no going back.
I MUST treat this young widow and her family with the love and respect they deserve — he deserves — and tell their story as accurately and as sympathetically as I can.
Making us tea
I am led into a lounge, curtains still drawn closed, and she ushers me to sit. We stay like that awhile. I, the interloper, the intruder keep my body low, leaving my handbag on the floor beside me. Now is not the time for me to unveil notebook and pen. That comes much later, long after the second cup of tea is drunk and the tissue box emptied.
I find myself clutching for what to say and how to say it. So, scrambling for the right words, the right tone for fear of causing yet more pain I do what we have always done in MY family in a crisis. Maybe what you do in yours. I offer to make us tea. How very British.
Our eyes meet and she nods. I’m directed to the kitchen and put the kettle on. As it boils, I quickly find the fridge and then the teabags. No, I don’t use this time to search through her cupboards to gather more information without permission, I just look out the window and wait. Does that make me a bad journalist? Should I be scanning the room for more clues? Maybe. Some may say so, but I have already been afforded so many privileges by being invited in that it feels wrong to step over that line.
A few minutes later and I’m carrying two steaming cups of tea into the lounge — now bathed in the early sunlight of the day. The woman in the dressing gown has drawn back the curtains and thanks me for her drink. I apologise for not knowing how much milk she likes.
Before I can settle back down she starts to talk, pointing out the photograph of her and her husband taken at a black tie event just a few weeks before his death, then the pics of them with their two sons.
I sit and listen, her life and the life of her children and husband, coming to life before me. And so it goes. As I scribble away in my notebook, a mix of my scrawled longhand and Pitmans New Era shorthand, I am taken on a journey until the point where her life changed forever and our paths crossed.
Looking up I shut my notebook and say “thank you”. As I clear away the tea things, I ask her if there’s anything she needs, anyone she would like me to contact for her. She shakes her head and explains a family member will be back with the kids later on.
I thank her for the loan of the photo — it’s the one on top of the mantelpiece where she and her husband look so happy, so in-the-moment, the last picture taken of them together. I promise to take good care of it (these were the days before digital photography and where negatives were the only option) and to return it.
It may seem trite but, in this moment, I feel tiny and utterly privileged. All at the same time, I feel humbled and feel the weight of having to tell a story that she and her family know oh so well. I vow to do it justice.
Death Knocks? Let’s rename them Life Stories.
A Death Knock enables a journalist to report on so much more than how that person died and, in today’s world, include more than just a few words copied from a Facebook account. Death knocks, however intrusive they may appear, gave journalists focused on that deceased individual the opportunity to allow a person’s loved one to say what they needed to say in a safe space.
I’ve lost count of the number of Death Knocks I’ve done over the years. I’ve done LOTS of them. And each time I had my heart in my mouth, my stomach churning.
Many journalists DO care
There’s a huge difference between the ‘hacks’ who build a career on doorstepping individuals to dig the dirt and those who are tasked with a Death Knock to report on what’s going on in their local community, ie the community they work in and very often live in too.
Has this article pressed buttons for you? Good. It’s meant to.
The point to all this? Please don’t tar all journalists with the same brush. They have a job to do, just like you and me. And sometimes that job requires them having to do things they feel nervous about, guilty about, unsure about and which they take seriously and care deeply about.
These days, Death Knocks are carried out less and less. The arrival of mobile technology, the internet and social media means it’s never been easier to collect information and ‘quotes’ on people who have died in accidents, fires, crimes, incidents without setting foot outside the newsroom. Is it wrong of me to say part of me is saddened by this?
As a journalist since the late 80s who spent most of my career in regional journalism, I still remember the days of the Death Knock and the impact all of those Death Knocks had on me. Freedom of the Press has never been more important than it is now. Not freedom to force your opinion on others unnecessarily or when it’s not been invited, or freedom to spread mis-information or fake news. I mean freedom to tell people’s stories through those who were closest to them. That is one of the great privileges afforded to a Death Knock journalist and one they should never take lightly.
To end this blog I refer you back to Wiki’s Death Knock explanation:
“The practice of death knocks, is often considered to be a negative aspect of journalism, but the exposure it brings has also been shown to sometimes be a comfort to bereaved individuals.”
Great journalists who are tasked with the job of carrying out a Death Knock should always strive to adhere to this principal. Connect human-to-human. Be humbled and moved by the experience. Make that tea. Tell that Life Story with love and heart and never, ever do it just for the byline.
Asha Clearwater is an NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) qualified journalist who’s been a news reporter, features editor and arts editor, as well as editor of several national business magazines.
Today, through her business Turquoise Tiger, she coaches SMEs on the art of great storytelling to promote their products and services.
Asha occasionally freelances as a writer for national magazines and is even behind some of the information boards you’ll find strolling through Woodland Trust Forests.