When I ‘did news’ I always endeavoured to avoid doing a death knock. I once had to telephone a mother whose soldier son had been killed by a sniper in Northern Ireland and ask if she’d do a “quick interview” when the same thing happened to someone else. That was enough to make me feel lower than worms, and it wasn’t even in the immediate aftermath of horror and disbelief surrounding her son’s murder.
I was talking about this with a colleague today. He had done a fair few death knocks in his time. “They kept sending me,” he said, “because people would talk to me.” But he feels the same way as I do about the whole issue: if a reporter came a-knocking following a death in the family, they would be told to go forth and multiply - and in no uncertain terms.
News editors like to justify it by claiming people want to talk about their lost relative, they enjoy being able to give a glowing tribute and they’ll feel all the better for doing so. Perhaps some people do. Perhaps they obtain a sense of comfort and closure, the same way people do from attending a funeral. But personally, I couldn’t imagine pouring my heart out to a stranger.
Then there are the professional victims: the people who give pictures of their child/spouse/sibling lying in a pool of vomit or strapped up to a life support machine to graphically illustrate the evils of drink/drugs/eating disorders. They become an ‘expert’ in that particular field, enthusiastically providing good copy whenever a similar issue hits the headlines. Of course, a journalist will repeatedly return to a good contact - that’s the way it works. But I can’t help feeling suspicious about the symbiotic relationship that develops between some victims and the media.
We are the Jerry Springer generation where every detail has to be shared. Perhaps someone’s pet issue helps them to cope with their grief, makes them think their loved one’s death wasn’t in vain or even goes some way towards filling the gaping hole that’s been left in their life.
I hope it’s something I never have to find out for myself.