The Death-Knock Debate

07May09

Irony is a double paged feature in the newspaper that wouldn’t give you a job. 

Satisfaction is where that feature is pretty well intact and unabridged – unfettered by the the busy keyboards of sub-editors.

Bemusement is when that double page feature in all its typographical glory is supported by an utterly irrelevant picture.

Student Direct is the paper. This is the paper I recently got a job rejection from for the primary reason that my writing-style was not what they were looking for. That to a journalist, especially from a paper like Student Direct is a bit like being told you’re too fat to join Weightwatchers. That, sadly was the best reason they could give me which I would have to agree with because my style has always been more journal than journalist. 

Despite all this they published a double-page feature I had written some time ago and only thought to send in about a month ago on the ethical dilemmas surrounding interviewing bereaved parents. Its a bit academic but I got some juicy interviews. 

The feature is punctuated with the stories of children dying in tragic circumstances – very hard-nosed stuff. And for the massive background image my feature had been runarounded for, they have chosen a mock-up of a grown man lying in the prone position with a weapon in his grasp in some sort of secure car park. 

Editors, please read the story before you pick an image to encompass its theme. Its very bewildering putting something like that in the portfolio and wondering the rushed though processes behind this mystery gun runner’s demise. A story in its own right, however not mine, sadly.

But then they very well can’t have a picture of a dead child , can they.

I envisaged an over-the-shoulder shot of a woman in an apron answering the door to two solemn coppers. Or a greasy photographer snapping pictures of the house with a frightened parent twitching at the net curtains. I should be hired for The Sun’s picture stories in the problem pages. 

To be honest, its a subject that has always troubled me. Death-knocks, hacks call them. It is not something I would ever wish to do for money and for a story having known friends who have had such treatment from oily newshounds in their area after a tragedy. And yet it is quite a significant part of local, and sometimes national news. 

There are lots of things in journalism where you have to put the journalism before everything else. Death knocking is one end of the spectrum and keeping you sources confidential at all costs (jail and huge fines being the punishment) at the other. I haven’t got a problem with looking after my sources, after all, it makes you a better journalist in the eyes of peers. Death knocks are my idea of hell. I can’t even VOXPOP without being told to piss off, not that it bothers me, but what would a mourning mother do to me?

My tutor, a very wirey hack, told us that when the widow wouldn’t come to the door, he’d wait for the milkman at the top of the street and tell him he’d take the milk to the door. He’d leave the milk halfway up the garden path so the widow would have to come out and he’d use this opportunity to at least get a picture of her. Imagine that – to a woman that is cruel, a photographer’s exclusive of a mourning woman in her nightie, no make-up and with misery etched across her early-morning face. 

Luckily such practices are now frowned upon in the industry however the Police make life no easier for the reporters out there writing up all press releases on sudden and tragic deaths that the family do not want to be interviewed as a default.

So what about the families who want to leave tribute? It is up to the journalist to more or less flout the guidance given to them by the Press just in case they miss a trick. 

Manchester Evening News reporter, Neal Keeling told us about a case where a little girl had been tragically run over while her mum loaded the car with shopping. The police statement said that the family were not interested in being interviewed but a crafty journo such as Keeeling asked the family if they wanted to contribute to a story about the little girl even though he reasiled they weren’t interested in the press.

To his surprise the family jumped at the chance to have their tributes to their daughter printed in the paper in a way to help them greave. 

Its a sad case of don’t ask, don’t get in this business and one has to be prepared to look like a fool or worse a heartless coward. 

Similarly, I have spoken to members of the Greater Manchester Police who have admitted that some families like to speak to the press to help them greave for instance if a murderer is still wandering the streets, or a hit and run has not been caught. That I can understand and that is what people should realise – that the press can be just as much a tool in finding a murderer or acknowledging the life of somebody. Journalists aren’t just interested in exclusives and in column inches. 

The laws are changing in the UK. Journalists need not feel the Sword of Damoclese’s pointy tip teetering on the top of their heads when refusing work they can justify as being unethical. Is it unethical, however if the Police are lazy in their statements about a family’s position with the media?

What I know is unethical is what these ridiculous subs have done to my very serious feature. I try very hard to be a serious journalist as solemnity does not come naturally to me. Even still – making my article look like a screen shot of a poor man’s Goodfellas does not convince me that attention has been paid and if the article wasn’t read by fellow journos what chance to I have with the general public? Perhaps I should stick to journal rather than journalist if its what I do best.

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