Sensitivity is the key to interviewing the recently bereaved
is a professor and head of journalism at Brunel University, London. Twitter: @BrunelJourSarah
A 'death knock' interview on national radio?
'Death knocking' is a rather flippant but oft-used newsroom term to describe the widespread practice of interviewing recently bereaved relatives. Typically, the freshest-faced, newly recruited junior reporter will be despatched to knock on the door of a family and ask for an interview not long after news of a dramatic or especially poignant loss. I did many such interviews while working for local and regional newspapers on Merseyside, the most harrowing being in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989.
So I pricked up my ears when, at 7.20am on Friday 2 November, BBC Radio 5 Live Breakfast’s Rachel Burden (item starts at 1.20.00) introduced Stephen Barnes, the father of 12-year-old Pierre.
Just a few hours earlier, divers had found a body believed to be that of his missing son in the sea. Pierre, a schoolboy from Grantham, Lincolnshire, had vanished on 27 October while cycling on Porquerolles, a few hours after arriving on the French island for a half-term holiday with his family. The interview took place on the assumption that the as yet unidentified body, found in deep water about a mile from where search teams had earlier found Pierre’s bike and one of his shoes, was the son’s.
The very idea that journalists would even consider approaching a relative at such an intensely traumatic and private time sends shudders of disapproval - initially - through the hearts of many journalism freshers and especially fellow media academics of the non-practitioner variety.
They are often surprised when I tell them how, when done properly and thoughtfully, the 'death knock' interview can actually be a positive and useful experience for the bereaved family.
Indeed, my own first exposure to journalists happened this way after my grandfather died. As a young girl I remember the knock on my grandmother's front door and the sheepish reporter being ushered into the sitting room where he was poured tea in the best china. Over the next hour or so my grieving grandmother was able to ensure that a factually accurate account of his ending was published along with a lasting tribute and a photograph of her choice.
In my own journalism career, working in tight-knit communities, many families have said how they too were pleased to tell the circumstances of a death just the once, so they could fend off the constant questioning as they went about their unavoidable daily business. They can highlight dangers, call for urgent action or lay rumours to rest. I have lost count of the number of times overstretched authorities passed me inaccurate information - names spelt wrong, for instance - and news agencies keen to cash in proffered images from unauthorised sources. So, while it never gets any easier to turn up on the doorstep, journalists must at least contact the family to check the facts are correct so as not to further compound their loss with sloppy journalism.
Armed with the recent 5 Live clip I'd heard, I entered my masters-level ethics class to look at the dos and don'ts of the death knock.
Rachel Burden's professionalism struck a chord with my British and international students. She opens with: "Thanks very much for talking to us at what must be an unbelievably traumatic time for your family." She acknowledges the intense pain the boy's father must be feeling. But at no point does she fall into the glib trap of saying she knows how the family feels: you can't, and it's churlish and insincere to get personally involved. Professional boundaries are appropriate, rather than faux identifications.
Burden allows Barnes time to speak, with no interruptions. Never rush your interviews when someone has so generously allowed you into their most private moment. Allow people time to articulate their feelings, and thank them for the privilege.
But in two places Burden asks Barnes to act as a journalist rather than an interviewee: "What is the latest news you have for us in the search for Pierre?" and "Remind us of what happened that day when he went missing?"
My students felt a more considerate approach would have been to ask him to describe his son rather than fill in nearly six minutes of airtime with mainly factual detail that might have been gleaned elsewhere.
The biggest question for my class was why did 5 Live run the interview at all? Did the interview add anything to the ongoing coverage of the story, or did it merely exploit the generosity and articulacy of a traumatised parent?
The fact that Barnes could speak with such calm eloquence was a gift to producers but added nothing, we felt, to listeners' comprehension. Had this been a local newspaper, an interview might have been a fitting tribute to the boy and served as a public conduit for the family to say once and for all what happened and how they felt. But in the context of national radio, it served 'to interest the public' rather than the 'public interest'.
While Burden's approach was a masterclass in professionalism, the ethics of broadcasting the interview were questionable. For my would-be journalists, bringing professionalism into closer alignment with ethics is what counts when making editorial decisions about how to cover sensitive stories such as bereavement and trauma.
What was the public interest of the interview - did it expand our knowledge or understanding or call public attention to risks or serious issues? Not really.
But, when children's deaths are usually reported only in the context of criminality, it may have given us fleeting balance; sometimes tragic things happen randomly which no-one can foresee or prevent.