Learning some tough lessons at the school of hard knocks

It’s now more than four decades since Bob Dylan first asked ‘How does it feeeeel?’in the chorus of Like A Rolling Stone. How many reporters have asked similar questions during the intervening years, most commonly on death knocks following some tragic event in an interviewee’s family?

Terry Pratchett – ‘the most shoplifted author in Britain”, The Guardian informs us – was quoted recently explaining why he left journalism: ‘I was sick of asking ‘How did you feel, Mrs Smith, when your son was knifed to death by muggers?’ What is she going to say? ‘Oh, I never liked him much?’ I hated that.”

Many journalists continue to hate it, many non-journalists think it is ghoulishly unnecessary, and many journalism students look forward to their first death knock with trepidation. The gung-ho few who claim to relish such encounters are more likely to give cause for concern than are the reticent majority.

But anyone who feels that knocking on somebody’s door after a death is callous, manipulative even, might be asked where exactly they think the information that appears in the news actually comes from. When we hear there has been a murder or a terrible accident, don’t most of us want to know who the victim was and something about their character and interests?

Such information does not appear in the media by osmosis, and full details are rarely supplied by police. Even in these days of Facebook’s seeming ubiquity, full and accurate particulars are commonly obtained by journalists knocking on the doors or ringing the telephones of relatives, neighbours, friends, schools and workplaces.

Sallyanne Duncan, lecturer at the University of Strathclyde, told a recent conference of the Association for Journalism Education that journalism students should be encouraged to think positively about death knocks as one of the legitimate ways in which reporters can find things out, and allow those directly involved in events to have their say.

We have no reason to be ashamed as long as we treat people with respect. Jackie Newton, of Liverpool John Moores University, added that journalists on death knocks should remember that the story ultimately ‘belongs’not to the reporter but to the family, to whom it is more than just a story.

No amount of journalism training can prepare people properly for the moment they knock on the door of a bereaved family for real for the first time, with a real deadline looming, a real news editor waiting for the story, a real picture on the mantelpiece, and a parent crying real tears.

What training can do, however, is to encourage prospective journalists to think in advance about the practical and ethical implications of such assignments, to listen to and read about the different approaches taken by different journalists, and to practise interviewing people in a range of circumstances.

Finally, although I’m wary of over-prescriptive advice, any journalist who finds the question: ‘How does it feel?’forming inside their head would be well advised to leave it there. Or save it for the next sing-along-a-Bob session.

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