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Old 04-16-2012, 09:58 PM   #1
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Are death knocks okay?

Here’s something that could generate some good discussion.

From trawling through numerous threads in this forum it appears many of you are disgusted with the state of journalism in the United States. I’m currently working as one (though I do sports and lifestyle, hardly hard-hitting news) and am very interested in the field. I don’t have the same vitriolic hatred that many of you seem to; though there are plenty of writers whose regular writings infuriate me.

Anyway this article is about death knocks. For the uninitiated, it’s when a journalist knocks on the door of someone who has just recently received news of the death of a family member or close friend (sometimes not even an hour after the death) and asks for comment.

What’s your opinion of the practice? Could you do it? I could do it, but I’d hate the thought of it (thankfully haven’t had to yet) and if I had to I’d say something like, “I’m very sorry to bother you at this time, I just wanted to ask if you’d like to comment, and if not I will leave right away.” Because it’s part of the job. Much as people outside the industry say that it’s completely unnecessary or incredible invasive (I could agree with those statements), it’s part of the job. Read any article, ever, after someone has died as a result of a car speeding accident. There’s either quotes from parents, family or friends or a line saying “so and so was too distraught to speak”.

It’s all about respect, I think, and some journalists don’t have it. Some park out the front of the house for hours, some try to force themselves upon the grieving, some have even stolen photos of the deceased. That’s disgusting behaviour.

One of my lecturers in university once told me that a former editor of a newspaper asked all potential new employees if they’d do death knocks – even if they were the first to break the news to the victim’s friends/family – and if the answer was no he wouldn’t hire them. That’s where I’d draw the line, no way in hell I’d ever tell someone their sister has just died, and by the way, can you comment on it?

Why I'll never get used to death knocks | Mamamia
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Old 04-16-2012, 10:24 PM   #2
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As someone who studied journalism, I agree that it is invasive and even immoral. I think the reason why so many death knocks take place is because we're a more invasive society now - just look at the amount of tabloids at the periodicals and how celebrity oriented our news has gotten. We're living in a society of "I need to know" or "I want the dirt" - even when it comes to everyday people. Since TV news is all about ratings and getting the exclusive interview, news directors and executives would have reporters do death knocks. It's a bit sick to do that, at least to me, but unfortunately money is the issue, not morals or ethics.

I never did death knocks, thank God. The closest I ever did was when I was in college, I did a report on the Vietnam Wall coming to my area and interviewing Vietnam vets at the site. Some of those vets nearly broke down on me when they recognized a name on the wall. Yes, I wasn't invading their privacy. But I still feel kind of guilty that I wasn't more sensitive or more aware that this person may be upset. True, it was their decision to talk to me and I didn't force them. But I wish I had had more sensitivity then getting enough interviews for my assignment.
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Old 04-16-2012, 10:38 PM   #3
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Heh, yeah, if you lived in the U.S. and had to put up with some of the media we do on a regular basis you'd understand some of our rantings better. I don't know what the media is like in Australia, if it's any better than ours. It just seems facts don't matter much anymore and everyone's so obsessed with being the "first" and getting the "exclusive" story instead of just reporting an honest account.

Anywho, as for the whole topic of "death knocks"...eesh. I agree, camping out, stealing photos, that sort of thing is absolutely insulting and rude and obnoxious. Those people who do that should be fired from their jobs.

If you MUST do one of those for some reason, I think there should be a grace period of some kind. That can be hard to determine, of course, as everyone's grief periods are different, but talking to people barely an hour after someone they love died, for instance, many would agree that's likely to be too soon. Ultimately, though, I feel the decision of whether or not the family wants to comment on those sorts of stories should be left up to the family themselves. For instance, if someone they love has been murdered and they want the media attention to help capture the killer and warn other citizens, or if they want to bring attention to drunk driving if their child was killed in one of those kinds of accidents, or whatnot, the media will hear from them at some point, no doubt, so just hang back and see what happens.

That's how I'd likely handle it if I were in that situation. I'd honestly be too scared to go up to someone's door and ask them for their thoughts, lest I get yelled at or chased away. Whatever method you use, reverence and timing should always be part of your reporting.
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Old 04-17-2012, 12:01 AM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by cobl04 View Post
Much as people outside the industry say that it’s completely unnecessary or incredible invasive (I could agree with those statements), it’s part of the job. Read any article, ever, after someone has died as a result of a car speeding accident. There’s either quotes from parents, family or friends or a line saying “so and so was too distraught to speak”.
I disagree that it's "part of the job". How often do snippets like this actually add anything to the story? 90+% of the time, they're a complete waste of space. Of course a father's going to say his murdered son was a wonderful lad; of course kids are going to say they adored their deceased mother; of course some people will be too distraught to speak. That sort of stuff goes without saying and adds nothing to the article.

Now, when it's more than just a snippet at the end of "Fatal Accident in Northcote Causes Peak Hour Delays" but an actual story about the victim and their life, or one of those "Parents Speak Out Against X" articles, then it's actually got merit.

Reading the comments on the article you linked, I just got the impression that the people defending and opposing death knocks were talking straight past each other. There was too much absolutist "death knocks are always unnecessary" and evasive, unquestioning "it's part of the job" rhetoric.
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Old 04-17-2012, 12:50 AM   #5
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I always love it when someone is talking about their loved one dying in an interview, and they talk about getting the call, or finding the body, or whatnot, and they're visibly all choked up...and the reporter feels the need to respond with something blatantly "no DUH" like, "That must have been really hard for you" or "How did that make you feel?" I'd love to see an interviewee in that situation respond with, "How do you THINK that made me feel?" or "We threw a Mardi Gras party" or something for once.
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Old 04-17-2012, 12:59 AM   #6
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Those questions seem very stupid, but sometimes it's the only way of getting good quotes. I did an interview the other week with a woman who had breast cancer and said "it must have been really tough" because I wanted some more emotive quotes. Again, not condoning this, but if you are writing an article on accident where someone has died, by asking those questions you can then quote them saying "I am shattered" etc whereas before they wouldn't have said so.

I agree, Ax, most of the time those quotes add nothing to the article, but in a world where you're taught to get comment from every single angle of the story, you do have to do. I'd prefer it were not part of the job, unless they did want to speak, but it is.
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Old 04-17-2012, 07:51 AM   #7
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If I were a journalist responsible for a story about a recently deceased person I would send an email to the family/friends stating that I am doing a story and if they wish to contribute/add anything to the legacy of the deceased's life they may contact me. I would not, however, knock on their door asking them to talk right then and there. When my mother died I had somebody show up at my house to ask about it, especially considering the death's circumstances. I slammed the door in their face.
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Old 04-17-2012, 01:28 PM   #8
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Can you think of many situations where a death knock quote adds to the story? Whose interest does it serve? What would the story lose without the quote?

If you can't answer those questions, don't knock unless it will jeopardize your job. I'm not flip enough to tell you to risk your livelihood. Even the griefstricken will survive the questions, dumb as they might be.
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Old 04-17-2012, 04:05 PM   #9
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If I'm reading an article about women living with breast cancer or Vietnam vets visiting a war memorial, as I reader I want and expect the subjects' feelings conveyed as part of the informative purpose of that article. I don't see any ethical problem with gently prompting subjects to do so in those situations. But as Axver said, what exactly is the need for quotes from the victim's family in articles from the initial wave of here's-what-happened coverage of some ghastly fatal incident? If it's nothing more than that convention dictates news articles should follow a fact->quote->fact->quote format, then yeah, I'm thinking that's not good enough to justify probing that wound wholly unbidden. I do agree with BonosSaint that the injury isn't of a nature to justify some reporter's losing his livelihood averting it either, but it really does nothing for me as a reader to have some token and predictable "We're just devastated right now" line thrown in when my main interest in the article is its presentation of the facts of what happened.
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Old 04-17-2012, 04:27 PM   #10
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If I'm reading an article about women living with breast cancer or Vietnam vets visiting a war memorial, as I reader I want and expect the subjects' feelings conveyed as part of the informative purpose of that article. I don't see any ethical problem with gently prompting subjects to do so in those situations. But as Axver said, what exactly is the need for quotes from the victim's family in articles from the initial wave of here's-what-happened coverage of some ghastly fatal incident?


exactly. in my line of work -- which isn't journalism, but not far from it -- i absolutely seek to draw out emotions, thoughts, feelings, profundities, absurdities, and, yes, tears when talking to people about certain potentially traumatic or tragic events that have more often than not happened years earlier. however, these are people who have agreed to be interviewed about a certain topic and have also possibly agreed to compensation for their time (again: not journalism, nor do we pretend to be). i have talked to people about everything from shipwrecks to gang rapes to multiple orgasms to serial killing, and the goal is to get the best, most compelling material possible. and the more respectful (and informed) you are, the more a subject will be willing to "go there" with you. and if they didn't want to go there they likely wouldn't have agreed to an interview in the first place. in fact, i'm often surprised at how people view the media as tools of their own in advancing their own agendas and potentially furthering their own bottom lines. media is exploited as much as it exploits.

this seems quite different from what are outlined as "death knocks" -- the article won't load for me -- but at the same time, it seems like a necessary evil of journalism. there are ways to be tactful and respectful while still performing one's job. something happened. people know something happened. people know it will be of interest to other people. they know the media will ask questions and aren't quite as delicate as we seem to imagine they will be.

but all this is distinct from, say, releasing photos of Whitney Houston in a coffin or hacking the phones of parents who've lost a child.

and to answer your earlier questions, no, i would not knock on the door of someone who had no clue their loved one had just died and be the first to inform them. but if someone is willing to talk, then yes, i would talk to them about whatever subject was at hand.
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Old 04-17-2012, 06:47 PM   #11
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One of my professors scoffed at the idea that they are wrong. He basically said you could just as easily give the person an opportunity to let their emotions out that said person did not have.
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Old 04-18-2012, 08:28 AM   #12
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I don't see how it adds anything to the story. Of course people are going to have the expected response. You see it here all the time-the local tv stations desperate to compete with each other, with negative results. Like they lost all sense of humanity.

If people want to share with the media they can seek that out. I say leave grieving and suffering people alone.
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