Anthony Longden Column: Don’t rely on Police to gain information from grieving relatives
Being sent to do a ‘death doorknock’ is one of the most important tasks a reporter is ever asked to perform.
It is also one that is frequently misunderstood.
And it is easy to see why non-journalists find the idea difficult. On the face of it, a journalist is crashing in on the intense and private anguish of a bereaved family.
Often, the cause of the death itself is particularly unpleasant – a murder, a suicide, a grisly industrial accident, or perhaps a car crash, so how can such behaviour be justified?
My first reporting job was in Slough. The town boasts the world’s first purpose built industrial estate. It sits on the notoriously treacherous M4 and A4, and has an extremely diverse population. Since it was such a big, busy place, the Grim Reaper was never very far away.
Trainees have frequently expressed their dread of having to do a death doorknock, and that is something I understand only too well. I felt exactly the same when I first set foot in the newsroom of the Windsor, Slough & Eton Express, waiting with trepidation for the momentous day when I would be asked to do it.
I didn’t have to wait long. One morning, we learned of the sudden death of a promising young footballer who was just 16. The news editor turned to me and said: “You’ll have to go round.”
As it happened, the address was close to the office, and I set off on foot. Just yards from the house I was overcome by a dragging, sick feeling in my stomach. How could I do this? How would the family react? What – exactly – would I say to them?
The worst moment came when I pressed the bell, and saw the shape of someone approaching on the other side of the frosted glass of the front door.
“Hello,” I stuttered. “I’m really sorry to bother you. I’m Anthony Longden from the Express. We heard about Andy, and I wondered if you could spare a few moments to tell me about him.”
To my surprise, I was immediately invited in.
The essential thing was that the family was glad of an opportunity to talk. And it happened to me again and again.
In preparing this article, I thought back, and estimate I must have done at least 50 death doorknocks, possibly more, and I was only turned away twice. By far the greatest majority of people were ready and willing to talk. At length.
Many expected the paper to come round, and in cases where they felt there had been some kind of injustice relating to the death, they positively demanded it.
The Editors’ Code, regulated by the new Independent Press Standards Organisation, recognises the need for death doorknocks, but makes the rules crystal clear:
Intrusion into grief or shock
i) In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. This should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings, such as inquests.
ii) When reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used.
There is now, however, a worrying trend. I have recently learned that some local papers no longer send reporters on death doorknocks, relying instead on the police to procure a statement from the family.
This introduces a third party whose default setting is not to release information.
We have seen it happen already with regard to burglaries. Police agreed to ask people whose houses had been burgled whether they would like the details to be released to the press.
There was even an agreed script, something along the lines of: “In our experience, having the story reported in the local press can be helpful in encouraging witnesses to come forward and, in some cases, to the recovery of stolen goods. Would you be happy for us to pass on the details?”
In practice, the question was either not asked at all, or shortened to something inviting a negative response: “You don’t want the details released to the press, do you?”
Thanks to that, you no longer see any proper details of burglaries reported in your local paper or on its website, and are not warned about thieves operating in your area.
The information is now so ridiculously scant there is nothing meaningful left to say, and so another traditional area of local content has disappeared.
The death doorknock remains a vital part of what journalists should do. It is an essential ingredient of responsibly charting the life and times of a locality, and providing a fitting tribute.
Sometimes hard to explain to outsiders, it is nevertheless something that must continue to be done by journalists who care about their community.
“The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.”
Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)
Poet, critic and lexicographer
* Anthony Longden advises News Associates on journalism. He spent 20 years as editor and senior editorial executive in various regional companies in the UK, including Newsquest and Trinity Mirror.
He is a member of the Society of Editors’ parliamentary and legal committee, lobbying on behalf of the media industry on a wide range of issues. Follow him on Twitter here.
He completed a three-year term as an editorial member of the Press Complaints Commission in 2012, and sat on its reform committee. Now a consultant and journalist, he advises the SoE and Alder Media, a London-based crisis PR firm. He judges the annual UK national and regional Newspaper Awards.