Death knocks: the dark side of journalism

As families face tragedy and shock, reporters arrive on their doorsteps, forced by their editors to get the story and the pictures

‘I have heard, on multiple occasions, news editors cheering at the news that the recent tragedy involved an attractive woman.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘I have heard, on multiple occasions, news editors cheering at the news that the recent tragedy involved an attractive woman.’ Photograph: Getty Images

 

She had been crying for two hours. That’s how long it had been since her son had died. And here I was, knocking at her door, notebook in my pocket, smartphone in hand, to record her every word. I had left my shame at the kerb.

This woman’s son had died in appalling circumstances; his face would be on the front of five national newspapers the next day. Approaching the front door, I selfishly hoped the rain might make her take pity on me.

Welcome to the death knock, part of the secret life of a tabloid journalist. It’s a practice carried out by at least one Irish newspaper reporter every day of the week. After the death or serious injury of any Irish person, the same modus operandi applies in newsrooms across Dublin.

The very minute that news breaks about someone dying “tragically” or being arrested or seriously injured, a squadron of reporters from across Dublin will be dispatched to the scene, photographers in tow. With the advent of online-first strategies in some news groups, the initial details are now sometimes released first via the official Twitter accounts of media groups.

Here’s how it works: first, you ascertain the family’s address (this is achieved either via a friendly garda or Department of Foreign Affairs official, or by pulling the dead person’s birth certificate, which is publicly available at a fee and provides the dead person’s address at birth, date of birth and parents’ names and professions). Then it’s time to knock on the family’s door.

In my experience of working with various editors over the years, it doesn’t matter if the death has just taken place. Even in the case of a baby’s death, the pressure is on reporters from radio and TV stations to talk to the family and to get the all-important quotes and pictures.

Sometimes local councillors are willing accomplices in this practice, colluding in identifying the victim’s address and even giving background information.

Attractive woman

The stories are legion. I have twice been asked to approach a family in hospital while their child was recovering in intensive care. I didn’t try very hard.

I have heard, on multiple occasions, news editors cheering at the news of a tragedy involving an attractive woman.

Then there was the time when, late on a rainy night, I was dispatched to a tough west Dublin estate after a woman had died in foul circumstances. I watched as a reporter from a rival newspaper unwittingly broke the news to several neighbours.

The situation got worse. Another neighbour, upon realising that my fellow reporter was not a garda, chased us both back to our cars. Other neighbours, on hearing the commotion, began to emerge from their houses. I felt like a lone RUC officer on the Falls Road circa 1988. The locals, quite rightly, felt this was no time for us to be sniffing for gossip. Our bosses disagreed. The next day I was sent back to the same estate for more titbits. People recognised me. I didn’t stay long.

Some journalism courses include ethics modules, in which lecturers who may not have seen a newsroom since the 1970s expound upon Aristotle and Kant, Christ and Marx, for thousands in fees. Graduates will tell you that it’s only upon entering an actual newsroom that you begin to see how little relation it all has to practice.

“Once I was sent to the funeral of a young guy, a GAA goalkeeper,” recalls a colleague whose editor was notorious for ordering repeated death knocks.

“I felt like an intruder, as you would, but I got some quotes and briefed [my editor], hoping to get away.”

Fat chance. “I was ordered to pressure the dead man’s parents to leave their only son’s funeral, walk to the local pitch, and stand in the goalmouth holding his picture.”

When bereaved families refuse to parley, Facebook sites are purloined for pictures, sometimes with consent, sometimes without.

When I tell friends, they are shocked. Why, if it so disgusts me, do I partake? Thankfully, my worst work is behind me. Sense comes dropping slow, and I have developed certain coping mechanisms, usually with the connivance of photographers. But sometimes it’s unavoidable.

 

Threat of harassment

At one death knock, I witnessed a scrum of just under a dozen news and radio journalists and photographers outside the door of a family whose special-needs son had drowned. Some members of the family were still unaware of the accident.

The bereft parents appealed for privacy, to no avail. A local councillor arrived and was promptly sent packing by the family, but not before an impromptu streetside press conference.

A senior reporter again approached and said, “If you just give us a few words and a picture, that’d be the end of it then.”

It was meant as friendly advice, but in many ways it was a threat of further harassment. I hung back from knocking, but I couldn’t leave: if you’re the only reporter without a picture or quotes in the next day’s paper, you might as well be joining the dole queue.

After three hours of answering their door to various reporters, the family finally relented, granting a lengthy interview and showing pictures of the deceased. Such is the lengths to which many media outlets – not just tabloids – will go in furtherance of the “public interest”.

 

Not lies but hijacked truth

Newspapers don’t knowingly print lies. In all my years I’ve never made up a quote, although paraphrasing by editors is rife. Yet seeing the truth hijacked on a daily basis makes this seem immaterial. One newspaper is notorious for writing their headlines first and then manipulating the story afterwards. It is not the only one.

When Piers Morgan said, “You don’t get to be editor of the Mirror without being a fairly despicable human being”, it shed light on a trade that rewards intrusive behaviour. I’d be very surprised if some Irish journalists aren’t implicated in phone-hacking, for example.

Tabloids aren’t all bad. You could argue that some readers wouldn’t know what was happening in the world if it wasn’t wedged between pictures of Kim Kardashian and Wayne Rooney. Yet celebrities court publicity; bereaved families do not. If the point of a free press is to shine the spotlight on society’s darkest corners, one wonders if its grandees would welcome their own ethical choices being held up to scrutiny.

The death-knock, for one, is so prevalent that it’s accepted as normal by reporters. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard, “I wish I didn’t have to do this.” But we don’t. Maybe the real disgrace is not that we are ordered to be so insensitive, but that we acquiesce in being so.

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