Death knocks: public interest or of interest to the public?

It’s the coming of age for any cub reporter. After guidance from tutors, anecdotes from seniors and goading from the news desk they will one day be asked to prove themselves on possibly the toughest assignment of all – the death knock.
Done respectfully it’s a skill akin to a grief counsellor and can even be cathartic for relatives of the deceased as it offers a chance for them, in tabloid-speak, to “pay tribute” to their loved one. Performed clumsily, it’s an unwanted intrusion into some of the worst moments of a family’s life.
The debate over what is and is not acceptable when reporting on death’s was sparked again when journalist Chris Wheal found himself dealing with the media after the death of his nine-year-old nephew Jamie died in an accident.
Following the experience, he has proposed a range of recommendations for the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) to use as a structured five-point protocol. You can read about them on his blog here.
When training to be a reporter the rules of death knocks were simply laid down as such:

  1. Introduce yourself clearly from the off so there is no misunderstanding why you are there.
  2. If you are refused, apologise for intruding and leave. Do not bother them again unless they wish to contact you.

However, in reality, I found this was a much too simplistic view for what was standard practice in the industry.
On slow news days, a favourite trick of news desks is to scan the death notices for anything that might look a bit out of place; such as a young death or a notice that stands out of the usual. I worked on one paper where it was not uncommon for the late shift to be taken up trawling through these.
And on extremely slow news days it is also not unknown for news desks to ask if you can “just try them again”.
It depends on the morals of the individual reporter and in a case where there is interest from rivals then the pressure on the reporter will be greater to get that “tribute” and a photo from the family album. There are plenty of reporters who will all but force their way in and rummage through the family photo album.
There have been times when sitting in a grieving parent’s living room I have wondered, whether it be because the death turned out to be not that unusual or because it had been a particularly morbid week, “Is this really what people are interested in reading?”
The PCC has said it has produced guidelines for journalists and editors on the topic of death knocks. On The Wire blog for the Press Gazette, Dominic Ponsford highlights a passage from a leaflet the PCC has produced titled Media Attention Following A Death. It reads:

“When there is no public interest for doing so, journalists should not follow or persistently question people once they have been asked to desist. The PCC can help with unwanted approaches by passing desist messages to relevant editors and broadcasters. In emergencies, this service can be accessed out of office hours by calling 07659 152656.”

So if we read this logically, people can be asked to be left alone – as long as the journalist or editor does not take the circumstances of their relative’s death to be in the public interest. Given the targets that news desks go for, this could include anything. Unless, of course, the relative happens to be aware of their rights and has the emergency number to hand.
At the moment, regulation of death knocks rests with the scruples of the journalist knocking at the door. That is why a formal approach for journalists as proposed by Chris Wheal is both interesting and welcome.
I was sorry to read about his loss and wish him well with his proposals.

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