Bereaved say 'death knocks' better than social media

A new study has found that personal visits, or ‘death knocks’, following sudden deaths may be better than journalists ‘snubbing’ bereaved families and instead relying on social media.

It also found that attempts to protect the bereaved through regulation following the Leveson Inquiry could ‘backfire’by discouraging journalists from contacting families.

The study by Jackie Newton, of Liverpool John Moores University, and Dr Sallyanne Duncan, of the University of Strathclyde, involved interviewing 49 reporters from the regional press and six editors or senior journalists with responsibility for the use of social media in ‘death knock stories”.

They also carried out a further 24 interviews with bereaved groups and families, which went a ‘long way to dispelling the myth that all journalists are uncaring, unprincipled hacks and that all bereaved families want to be left alone”.

Newton and Duncan found that more families now feel excluded from reports of their relatives’ deaths than feel intruded on. ‘A number of families in this study had been prepared by the police for intense media interest in the death of their loved one,’they said.

‘When it did not arrive, or when their loved one’s death was ignored or covered briefly without contact with the family, they felt ‘let down’.

‘One mother of a murder victim said this perceived lack of interest added a further layer of hurt to her bereavement. ‘It was as if my son’s death counted for nothing.’

Journalists now are increasingly expected to use social media to access material without the knowledge of bereaved relatives and friends, but, according to research, though it is legal some people ‘might view it as being similar to hacking”.

And one of the risks of the intense media scrutiny caused by the phone-hacking scandal was that it could make journalists ‘more likely to avoid bereaved families and turn to social networking sites in order to write death knock stories”.

One local newspaper reporter said: ‘Approaching the family is the most uncomfortable, awkward and difficult task…however inevitable and unavoidable…Headlines in the paper may often be the first ‘real’ encounter the bereaved family experience from the tragedy at hand.

‘Sensational headlines become the brutal reality before they themselves have come to terms with their loss. However, relying on friends (when you are unaware of their relationship to the deceased), as opposed to the family, could give a tainted, prejudiced and misconstrued view of the subject.”

‘A virtual version of taking comments from cards and flowers’

The use of material gained from social networks which was already in the public domain was a ‘significant area of contention’among reporters involved in the research.

The consensus was that journalists ‘believe that this is freely available for them to use whilst the public take a different view. Generally, journalists said they did not think that it was intrusive to use comments from a deceased’s site if the profile is set to public, stating that the individual has chosen to publish details of their life on the internet.

‘One daily newspaper journalist described it as ‘a virtual version of taking comments from cards and flowers at the scene'”.

The study also found that families often expect to be contacted by their local newspaper and have been prepared for media attention by the police.

If they do not receive any “they can feel snubbed and are more likely to feel resentful about any subsequent story that is carried,’with one former news editor commenting: ‘I’ve taken calls on the newsdesk from people who have complained that their family tragedy didn’t receive coverage. It’s very hard. What do you say? You’re story wasn’t tragic enough?”

Newton and Duncan concluded that ‘many people have a reasonable expectation that their local paper will cover the death of their loved one in a sensitive manner and that they will be given a role in that coverage”.

They added: ‘As a long-serving news editor in the North West was fond of saying: after a tragic death families in Liverpool expect ‘the undertaker, the priest, and the Liverpool Echo.’

‘Managing such expectations can be difficult in the current situation where fewer journalists are doing more and more work. However, when a tragedy is newsworthy these observations demonstrate that there is a need for the loss to be acknowledged and for the family to be part of the tribute article.

‘One senior editor described this as being ‘part of the memorabilia, as important as the hymn sheet at the funeral'”.

‘None of the journalists or editors we interviewed believed it was acceptable to use social media to avoid the family,’said Duncan, but she also warned that this could change if the Leveson inquiry decided on tougher regulation to police media contact with the bereaved, with journalists turning to social media ‘for fear of falling foul of regulators”

‘We need to bear in mind that the majority of encounters between journalists and the bereaved are anticipated and positive – particularly in the regions,’said Newton. ‘Further protection or regulation is not the answer when many of the bereaved wish to actively participate in stories about their loved ones.”


11 thoughts on “Bereaved say 'death knocks' better than social media”

  1.  Interesting comments, folks. All will be taken into consideration in future research! Obviously these are headline findings, but please be assured that Sallyanne and I don’t assume that every family will want coverage or that every death knock will be welcomed. Why would we?  We’ve both been out in the field. I was 17 when i did my first death knock and I remember it like yesterday. We also faithfully recorded instances in the full academic papers of intrusion and bad practice and commented on these, although they were outweighed by positive experiences or instances in which the family were not contacted at all. The families interviewed were a mixture of those who had spoken to the press and those who hadn’t, but one of the problems we had at first was that families didn’t put themselves forward because they hadn’t had any bad experiences - a process of self-selection that would have skewed the research to the “journalists as vultures” view. Their expectation was that we would only be interested in negative experiences. This was overcome to an extent by us speaking to whole groups about the research and in one case doing a group interview. We started off our research (some years ago) wondering whether the death knock was a legitimate practice at all – but concluded that until we work out how to include families in the story of their own tragedy without such an approach it is something we are stuck with. Our aim is to make it less harmful for all concerned. Sorry this is so long, but you know how verbose us college types are – and this comes from acres of research. 

  2. There is no doubt that families are leant on by the cops and told not say anything, no doubt because ‘it might interfere with the police investigation’. This leads to police putting out statements saying that the family have requested they are not contacted by the media ‘at this difficult time’. The press release might, if you are lcky, incle a tribute froom ‘the family’ – never named – saying that they are devastated and the individual was ‘a wonderful hsband, father, brother, son, nephew and uncle’. There will never be any biographical detail such as place of work, names and ages of family etc. If you get a release like this, it makes a doorknock impossiible and you have too do your best to fill in the gaps from neighbours, social media etc. I am conviinced that iin many cases, relatives do  want to talk, but they assume the police know best, even though that family liaison officer or mid-ranking press officer has never been a journalist. The contrast to this is when a person dies overseas. This puts the family outside the remit of the dreaded family liaison officers and my experience is that nine times out of ten, they will then happily talk to the media and very happy with the wriite up tributes

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