Dear Dr Deadline 24-01-03

Dear Dr Deadline,

I’m a reporter on a regional newspaper. Over Christmas, a friend of a colleague on the paper was involved in a serious road accident caused by a drunk driver and was sadly killed.

Our news editor told my colleague that he had to go to interview her relatives, even though this wasn’t his usual beat (usually he does business reporting). He didn’t feel at all happy about this, feeling he would be exploiting a personal relationship for professional gain. However, he was told in no uncertain terms to go and do the job. Do you think this is right?

The situation reminds me of a case four years ago in the Midlands when the son of a well-known football manager tragically committed suicide. One of the evening paper’s sports reporters had become a friend of the manager through reporting on the club, and was asked to request an interview with him the following day.

He refused on the grounds that he knew the manager would say no, and because he thought such an “insensitive” request would affect his future relationship with one of his best contacts. The upshot was that he was moved to a different job, which he felt was constructive dismissal. He lost his employment tribunal claim.

The fact is the death knock is part of any newspaper reporter’s role. It may be one of the least pleasant aspects of the job, but it still has to be done and it fulfils a vital function. In fact, as Ben Rooney wrote so eloquently in Press Gazette last year (go to pressgazette.co.uk and search for the story titled ‘Right tactics in a tragedy’), talking to a journalist can actually have a positive effect on grieving relatives and witnesses to traumatic events. There is often – as would seem the case here – a public safety issue; so other readers may benefit from the story.

However, what isn’t clear is whether your colleague was offered any training or guidance before doing this particular ‘death knock’. In Dr D’s experience, not much thought is generally given to this area – and harm can be done both to the bereaved and to the newspaper’s reputation if the situation is handled insensitively.

In this instance, the fact that your colleague already knows the relatives of the deceased could also be helpful. They might find it easier to talk to a face they know than to a complete stranger.

Remember if he had refused, someone else would still have been assigned to do the interview.

Doctor Deadlines Deathknock Tips:

Don’t phone – do it in person.

Consider speaking to neighbours first. Find out if relatives are in a fit state to see you. Don’t arrive with the neighbours – the bereaved might not even like them.

Think about what to say when the door is opened. Compose yourself.

Basic courtesy counts: apologise for the intrusion, make it absolutely clear who you are, where you are from and why you are there.

If appropriate, use the word “tribute” to get off on a positive footing, but be absolutely straight.

Avoid crude empathy such as “I know what you must be going through…” It never convinces.

Present yourself as someone the person might wish to use rather than someone who has come to get something.

Stress you have come to get your facts straight and find out more, if appropriate.

Make it clear, unthreateningly, that something is likely to go in the paper – this is their chance to influence what it might be.

Disappear if the bereaved do not want to talk. Do not persist.

Leave a card. What about writing a letter?

Got any questions for Dr Deadline? Or do you disagree with his advice? E-mail him on doctordeadline@pressgazette.co.uk

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