News Society Culture Life Comment Video

Feature

Knock, knock: How the news media turns corpses into content

Tuesday 30th May 2017

If it bleeds, it leads, or so the saying goes. But with death knocks being practised daily, what is the impact on the living?

“It's kind of like dealing with death at a safe arm’s length. Because we all want to know: how the hell do you cope if your grandchild drowns?”

Illustration: Holly Davies

On a bitterly cold morning in February 2015, Olivia Carville stood outside Toronto’s North York Hospital for six hours waiting to find out three year old Elijah Marsh had died.

Carville did not know Elijah; nor did the thousands of people who came out in droves to join police and rescue helicopters to search for toddler who, at 4am that morning in just his nappy and a pair of boots, had wandered out of his apartment into the negative 15 degree world outside.

Elijah was found at 7am and pronounced dead at 2pm.

But for Carville the wait wasn’t over.

A reporter for the Toronto Star, the Kiwi expat had a job to do, a story to write, and a grieving family to interview. And so, when the boy’s aunt and uncle emerged from the hospital, Carville took her chance.

So did her peers.

“As soon as all the other reporters saw me talking to a crying couple, they descended like wolves.”

The couple were distraught but she had the quote. Her job, for the most part was done. Completing the 12-hour shift, she drove back to the newsroom and wrote up the story.

“Then I went home and as soon as I got into my apartment I closed the door and just fell into a heap on the floor crying.

“You just think, ‘how the hell am I that person that's standing outside a hospital waiting to hear if this little boy has died or not?’”

***

For Carville, who two years later is now an investigative journalist for the New Zealand Herald, this was not a first, and by no means was it a last. In an industry that coined the phrase ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ death knocks - the industry term for approaching the bereaved - are a staple.

Reports of death and the dead are ubiquitous in the news media. The crying mother on TV; the grieving husband in the paper; the tributes paid to loved ones on Facebook, expertly curated and presented like Buzzfeed lists online: Today’s backpage obituaries become tomorrow’s front page news in a cycle so efficient one could be forgiven for forgetting the ideological baggage that comes along.

The mediation of grief - inherently personal as it is - is almost intuitively distasteful for some. Stories of the bereaved - and the means by which they were obtained - play like grief porn, a corpse turned into content before it has even been put in the ground.

Of course for many others the death knock is a good and a service. Humanising tragedy, helping families express their grief - what would tragic news be without the personal stories of the lives affected?

Often assigned to younger journalists as a way to toughen them up - and who are, in turn, hesitant to turn down a story and eager to prove themselves - death knocks are referred to in newsrooms in casually euphemistic turns of phrase - a right of passage! a necessary evil! - and very few within the media would take a stance of total opposition.

But in an industry governed more by traditional values (Woodward and Bernstein!) than clearly defined rules and guidelines, this veneer of shoulder shrugging resignation obscures an ongoing attempt to negotiate and reconcile the role of death and the dead in breaking news media.

***

"I don't see that there's anything wrong with death knocks”, says Lyn Barnes, a senior lecturer of journalism at AUT. “Because you find out so much about that person. They become a real person, rather than just a statistic, if you can tell their story.”

While Barnes who recently completed her PhD thesis, Journalism and Everyday Trauma: A Grounded Theory of the Impact From Death-knocks and Court Reporting, ostensibly advocates the death knock, it was a visit from a former student that first drew her to the subject.

Working as a reporter on a Sunday paper, Barnes says, the young woman was “constantly” doing death knocks.

She seemed cynical and burned out, a far cry from the eager student she had been just years before.

"We all know it's a crock of shit,” Barnes recalls her saying. “It's all about blood and guts and a couple of lines about how he liked fishing.”

Barnes heard more stories. With little to no specific training offered in tertiary journalism courses, she found junior reporters were being sent out on death knocks seemingly with the goal of toughening them up. The thought worried her.

“These people are practicing on the public. How unfair is that on not only the young journalist, who obviously never forgets that experience? What about the person who's grieving?”

“You're sending someone out there who isn't prepared for those emotions. There’s the risk of re-traumatising someone who's traumatised.”

“You just think, ‘how the hell am I that person that's standing outside a hospital waiting to hear if this little boy has died or not?’”

Illustration: Holly Davies

“In a way, the death knocks were one of the reasons I left working in news and current affairs” says Damian Christie, who worked on TVNZ’s now defunct current affairs show Close Up at Seven from 2006 to 2008.

As a reporter for the programme, Christie was frequently called upon to do death knocks and, until one shortly preceding his departure from Close Up in February of 2008, he did them.

It was a tough one: a 17-year-old boy, piloting a Cessna, had died tragically in a mid-air collision and Christie was to interview the father.

But before this could happen, Christie’s boss approached him - a list of questions for the grieving man in hand. They were, says Christie, “the most inappropriate questions”, says Christie.

Christie did the interview but refused the proposed line of questioning. The story was dropped.

“Of course I didn't ask those questions. That was probably another reason the story didn't run. But imagine if it had.”

Days after the incident and just a week before his departure from TVNZ, Christie wrote in a post for Public Address, “If I never have to approach another dead child’s parents and ask them to postpone –or better yet, display– their grief so the nation can watch, it’ll be too soon.”

Now running his own production company, to this day he has not done another.

“I think I made the right decision. I haven't had to behave unethically like that since then.”

***

In the wild and woolly world of New Zealand media law, governed by a mix of councils and bodies, ever developing torts and some fairly non-specific common law, the rules around death knocks are hazy. Of the Press Council’s 12 principles, the one most relevant would seem to be number two: privacy.

Every person is entitled to privacy of “person, space and personal information”, it states. “The right of privacy should not interfere with publication of significant matters of public record and public interest.”

“Those suffering from trauma or grief call for special consideration.”

Sound vague? It is, and it is perhaps this subjective terminology that lead to a case like 2016’s Bob Rivett and Family against The Press. Rivett, whose daughter-in-law had just died, accused the Christchurch publication of causing significant distress by attempting to contact the family twice - despite having released a statement via the police asking for privacy.

Responding to the complaint, Press deputy editor Kamala Hayman stated that the phrasing in police media release “is a standard sentence that does not indicate to us that a family has asked to be contacted.”

The complaint was upheld, and the scenario demonstrates that the potential for miscommunication is huge.

"That's the hard part”, says Barnes. “You've got a code of ethics that says 'do not intrude on somebody' but you've got an editor who says ‘I want a story and I want it today and I want it now’.

“So what are you gonna do? Are you going to go back without a story? Because that is unacceptable.”

***

With such a concerted effort made by newsrooms to tell stories of doom and gloom, one is inclined to wonder: is this supply matched by demand?

According to Dr Tracey McIntosh, an Associate Professor of sociology at the University of Auckland, the answer is yes.

“These stories are human stories. There is an expectation that when we have tragedies we will have some semblance of understanding. That there is a possibility of collective empathy, of compassion.”

Barnes believes that death knock stories give the public a chance to inform their understanding of death - albeit vicariously.

“People click on them, they read them. And I think that is because we need to know about dying.

“It's kind of like dealing with death at a safe arm’s length. Because we all want to know: how the hell do you cope if your grandchild drowns?”

Consumer demand for these stories becomes more troubling, says McIntosh, when it “goes beyond empathy or a compassionate response, to where grief is used to titillate.

“Because it's not our grief, in some ways we become spectators to that grief.”

"We all know it's a crock of shit. It's all about blood and guts and a couple of lines about how he liked fishing.”

Illustration: Holly Davies

So what of those whose grief it is?

Mark Wilson has worked in the media for the better part of his career so, when his wife died by suicide 10 years ago, he thought he was prepared for what was to come.

A producer for Duncan Garner’s Drive show on Radio Live, he had just returned to work when a reporter called to invite him on as a guest on a current affairs television show. It’s an exchange he has never forgotten.

“It was just completely inappropriate”, Wilson recalls. “He had all the details incorrect. It felt, to me, way too soon,” he says.

The request felt cynical, preying.

“I was affronted by his lack of empathy and skill and ability to connect with me. All he wanted was to get the hit off me, to go ‘oh yes I guess I'll do it’ and then turn up and the lights are on you and I'm bawling my eyes out on a couch, you know?”

But it doesn’t always have to be this way. When Bryan and Jo Guy’s son Scott was murdered, the first journalist on their doorstep didn’t even want an interview.

Instead, he told them, he only wanted to introduce himself.

“It was a horrible day”, Bryan recalls. He invited him in.

“I didn’t want him standing out in the wet and cold.”

“I think he was a bit surprised.”

The reporter’s approach impressed them, but even if he had wanted information they would have been unable to offer it.

After all, says Bryan, “we didn't know what was going on anyway.”

Seven years on from their son Scott Guy’s murder - which would become one of the most extensively covered deaths in recent New Zealand media history - the Guys still remember the difficulty of repeatedly fielding questions from journalists in the midst of the utmost shock and confusion.

However, participating in interviews and police press conferences, it gradually got easier. The public, they found, related to them and wanted to support them.

“We got hundreds and hundreds of cards and letters. We've got a trunk full of them. I think I replied to about 700 of them.”

“It was a very bizarre story and it seemed to get worse and worse” remembers Jo. “And we found that the journalists and the media in the main had a lot of empathy.”

***

Even advocates agree that it is essential to take every precaution necessary to minimise harm to the victims - and that at present there are few ways of ensuring this.

For Barnes the deficiencies begin at the tertiary level, where she says journalism students receive little to no preparation for both the practical and emotional consequences of the death knock.

“There's all these things you have to teach in a course, and it's still not considered a vital skill. Whereas to me it is. It’s as important as writing a good intro.”

Barnes herself has made steps to facilitate such training in her classes at AUT, hiring actors posing as grieving members of the public for students to interview. The classes, she says, have proven valuable – yet her peers seem resistant to such an initiative.

“Basically, you are meant to be going out there and capturing emotions but you're not taught how to."

Wilson meanwhile is troubled by the minimal amount of ongoing training for reporters subsequent to journalism school.

“Professional development in media tends to be just 'do it' and you'll learn by experience which is hard because it can be pretty brutal out there when you're talking about a death knock scenario.”

One would imagine few would advocate for a trial and error approach to training in any job, let alone one where mistakes may come at the expense of the grieving.

Barnes, however, says her calls for change have met resistance.

“It's been a battle. Journalism is still very much a macho industry in their ways. You're meant to disassociate yourself or not show any emotion but how do you learn to do that?”

***

Vague as it may be, media law in New Zealand does stipulate one thing: the right of the family not to speak. For the pushy editor or the ambitious reporter, this presents a problem. But it’s also one that has seemingly found a solution: Social media.

With tributes from friends and family, photos and seemingly bountiful information, social media profiles are like a treasure trove for reporters – and are seemingly fair game.

“In many ways that's the new form of the death knock” says McIntosh.

It’s a recent phenomenon but already mistakes have been made: In 2014 an image of Jackass star Ryan Dunn was taken from 21-year-old fallen soldier Guy Boyland’s Facebook and published on the New Zealand Herald’s front page alongside the story of his death.

The potential for risk is high – but seemingly outweighed however by ease and speed, qualities modern newsrooms find hard to resist.

It’s not an ideal solution, says Carville.

“It's really important to actually reach out to the families as well. Sometimes that can be really difficult when you're working in that kind of fast paced breaking news environment.”

There is no easy solution to the ethical problems the death knock poses – and, says McIntosh the potential for harm is very real.

“The research clearly indicates that often people feel that they've been robbed of their grieving time when a death, for whatever reason, becomes a very public death.”

Additionally, during the initial stages of grief, the issue of consent becomes problematic.

“I know of people who've said afterward that they were talking to media when they were just zombie” says Wilson, who has worked in suicide bereavement since his wife’s death.

“They look back at what they said and it doesn't represent a thing about how they are or how they really feel now.”

***

While problems arise - and when they do they’re big problems - those within and outside of the industry seem to agree that death knocks can be ethical.

The most important thing then is to minimise harm as much as possible.

One way of doing this, Carville says, is to ensure the victims do not feel powerless.

“They don't know who you are, they don't know what you're going to do with the story. They think that they've lost complete control over the situation.

“But if you hand that back to them and say ‘I'd like to talk to you about your loved one, if there's anything you don't want to answer you don't have to’, sometimes that helps because they just feel so helpless in that situation.”

Barnes says that in particularly sensitive situations, it’s acceptable for journalists to almost to break the rules by sending copy back to people to check the quotes.

“You're giving that power to the victim, not taking it.”

Ultimately, says Carville, no matter where in their career they are, the journalist must not only be motivated by newsroom competition, but by conviction.

“It’s our job to give these people a voice and I also think it's our job to give them the chance to speak if they want to.

“Really understand why you believe in what you're doing, your reasoning for standing on that door step and asking them to speak about their loved one.

“And once you understand that, it becomes easier I've found.”



Join the discussion »

Login to post a comment

Login or Signup


Comment

In accordance with our Comments Policy, all comments are moderated before they appear on the site. This happens 7am to 7pm each weekday.

Katie is a journalist at The Wireless.
Join the discussion

Discuss, comment and read comments about this article.

Share