Journalists comforting the afflicted? Don’t make me laugh
I’ll never forget my first death knock. That’s a phrase journalists use, in the UK at least, for calling unannounced on someone who’s just been bereaved.
It was the mid-1990s. I was working the 7am shift on a provincial evening paper, which meant phoning the police to ask if there’d been any overnight incidents.
Usually nothing had happened, but in this instance, joyriders had caused a car crash, killing an innocent woman in her late teens. I informed the newsdesk straight away, knowing they’d expect me to visit the family home and find out what I could about her.
I ought to stress that reporters on local papers don’t enjoy this. They’re meant to be a trusted part of the community, after all. The old-fashioned rural weekly where I’d trained a few years earlier didn’t go in for death knocks, ever. But I was on a daily now. It was part of my job.
Queasily, I tapped on the front door of a large, expensive house at 8am. A woman answered (the victim’s aunt, I later discovered), looking dazed from shock and lack of sleep. Full of apologies, I introduced myself and explained who I worked for. Almost imperceptibly, she winced.
Understandably, she didn’t want to talk, so I thanked her and left. Outside in the street, I called my news editor — on my work mobile phone, a novelty in those days — who asked me to slip a note through the door, expressing my sympathy (which was sincere) and including my office contact number in case anyone wanted to pay tribute to the young woman.
“While you’re at it, knock on the next-door neighbours’ doors, see if they can tell you anything,” my news editor added.
“What’s your name? I’m going to call your paper and tell your editor about you.”
So, that’s what I did, enraging a man who was friends with the family. “What’s your name?” he asked, pursuing me down his front path. “I’m going to call your paper and tell your editor about you.”
Go ahead, I thought. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be here.
My boss was an eloquent, engaging man, so I assume he told the neighbour that this was a regrettable part of a reporter’s job. He would have made clear that we strove to be sensitive and that we’d leave straight away without harassing anyone. This wasn’t a foot-in-the-door job.
And it worked. Within an hour, the neighbour had phoned me, distraught, to say what a tremendous girl the teenager had been. With his assistance, I established that her dad was a high-ranking military officer posted thousands of miles away — a scoop by local standards.
At the office — a small branch of a much larger, city-based organisation — I discussed the death knock with my colleagues, who were decent, conscientious people. We agreed that, were we in the relatives’ shoes, we couldn’t be sure that we’d show as much grace. Later in the day, my friend Maggie, a reporter in her early 60s with a reassuring, grandmotherly manner, visited the family’s home and was turned away politely. From that moment on, we left the family to grieve in peace.
And yet a quarter of a century later, I can’t shake the memory of that lady on the doorstep wincing. It haunts me.
Afflicting the comfortable
A tweet by one of Britain’s best-known broadcast journalists reminded me of this recently. Stung by allegations that the British press has misjudged the public mood during the Covid-19 pandemic, Lewis Goodall, policy editor at the BBC’s Newsnight, wrote: “It’s a cliché of journalism but an accurate one to say that we should be here to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Too many on here seem to think it should be the other way around.”
Leaving aside the fact that I’ve never heard this ‘cliché’ in my 28 years as a journalist, I let out a hollow laugh when I read this self-aggrandising cant. Because for all the good that journalists (especially the local ones) do — fostering a sense of community, keeping a wary eye on local and national government, publicising worthwhile causes and so on — I’ve never thought of them as saintly types who comfort the afflicted.
“Sometimes people want to talk, to unburden themselves. They’ll show you photos of the kid who’s died. They want him to be remembered in the paper.”
Friends I’d been to college with would sometimes hint at a higher motive when I agonised about that 8am house call; that and the two death knocks I did later in the 1990s, one of which ended with an emotionally broken father slamming the door in my face. (“I don’t blame him,” said the photographer waiting in the car, as the family gathered at a window to watch us skulk away. “Me neither,” I replied.)
“They’re not that bad,” said a woman who’d found work on a paper at the other end of the country. “Sometimes people want to talk, to unburden themselves. They’ll show you photos of the kid who’s died. They want him to be remembered in the paper.”
I suppose that counts as comforting the afflicted, even if there is a commercial imperative to secure the interview while the body’s still warm.
What troubles me, on reflection, is that I did something I considered morally reprehensible and rationalised it to keep a job that was interesting and agreeable. Making a grieving relative a little bit more distressed for a minute was the price I paid for free entertainment and the occasional celebrity interview.
British playwright Joe Penhall, an ex-journo himself, captures this beautifully in his 2004 play Dumb Show, about a pair of tabloid hacks who entrap a famous comedian into revealing incriminating secrets about himself.
“I never wanted to do this, you know,” the ambitious young woman, Liz, says to the shellshocked light-entertainment star as his career lies in ruins. “I wanted to be a music critic… or a, you know, a rock journalist…”
The moral high ground
Perhaps death knocks are just a personal preoccupation of mine, a reminder of my corruptible nature that I’d rather forget. Perhaps I’m beating myself up unnecessarily.
But in the five years that followed, I concluded that the news was largely bullshit. Hysterical, cherry-picking, catastrophising bullshit at that. Feature-writing and editing suited me better. If the news were a person, it would be one of those perpetually whingeing doom-mongers that self-help books warn you to avoid for the sake of your mental health.
It amuses me, the way news journalists paint themselves as noble truth-tellers. The way they claim the moral high ground. It’s not wholly inaccurate, of course — often there’s a righteous (or self-righteous) compunction to nail the bad guys of this world, in politics or elsewhere — but I’ve heard enough insider tales from the national press to be deeply cynical.
“How many shattered families did you needlessly upset when you were editor? What have you done for society?”
If I ever go into politics (which won’t happen, I promise), I’ll be sure to make a point of pricking their pomposity. “You’re pointing the finger at me, really? When I’m doing my level best? How many death knocks did you do on the Daily Thingummy, then? How many shattered families did you needlessly upset when you were editor? What have you done for society?”
In the meantime, I can’t help but associate Goodall with Sky News, where he was a political correspondent from 2017 to 2019. The channel’s good works may have passed me by, but I do recall that in 2014, before he joined, it ran shock-horror reports on Brenda Leyland, an alleged troll whose social media history showed an alarming obsession with the parents of Madeleine McCann, a three-year-old who went missing on holiday in 2007.
Leyland’s thousands of tweets and retweets suggested she was a crank, and one might argue that she should have been confronted, but why this should lead Sky’s hourly bulletins for a day is anybody’s guess. Two days later, she killed herself. “The enormity of what happened will always be with me,” reporter Martin Brunt told the inquest into her death.
The altruism, eh? It’s enough to make you weep.