Wednesday, 21 July 2010

The 'death knock'

Freelance journalist and trainer Chris Wheal has written a moving article on his blog about the behaviour of the media following the death of his nine-year-old nephew.

An experienced journalist, Chris said the experience was an 'eye-opener'.

He says that while the nationals were 'lazy' and just relied on churnalism, most of the local media was 'good'. However, there was one exception:

After getting my statement issued though the police and having seen rival papers out-scoop and take a more news-focused attitude...the News in Portsmouth sent a reporter to doorstep my sister. He was met with a torrent of abuse...

This was on Sunday. I tried to contact the News, with no luck. I called the police media officer, who called the crime reporter, who said it was unlikely to have been the News behaving like that. Later that night I did get confirmation from the News that it was them – and an apology.

Chris also highlights the vultures offering the family cash for 'their story':

Someone claiming to be from Love It magazine had phoned to offer cash...

Agency SWNS also called my sister yesterday offering money for the story – there is just no way they would accept money and you have to admit it is sick of the agency to even offer.

He ends:

My sister is not me. She is an inherently private person, as is her husband. They have never courted publicity. They have never sought to be in the press. They are not celebrities. I ask the press of consider that and leave them alone.


  1. I can't understand why the 'death knock' is an accepted part of local journalism. Unless there's some pressing reason for it (and right now I'm struggling to think what that could be) just use the press contact. At least leave it a few days before you start showing up at the doorstep.

  2. I have responded to this on the Guardian's website so it's only fair that I do so here.
    Sad to see this normally excellent blog lifting a post without asking for a response.

    I am the news editor of The News, Portsmouth, whose judgment is being called into question here.
    First of all my sincere condolences go to Mr Wheal and his family. A decision to send a reporter on a 'knock' in these cases is never taken lightly.
    I've done enough of these to know that every person reacts differently to a reporter on the doorstep in tragic circumstances. In some cases they will be angry and ask you to leave. In others they will understand that you are doing your job but prefer not to say anything. Others will welcome the chance to talk about their loved one.
    My 'judgment call' was this: I asked a reporter to make a polite knock on the door in the early evening four days after the incident.
    In this case, our reporter was met with a furious response and dogs were set on him. He was also later threatened with the prospect of a water pistol full of horse urine.
    While I understand this is an incredibly difficult and sensitive time for any family, I do question whether there is any decent news editor in the land who would not make the same call upon learning of such a tragic accident. We had the police statement which included quotes from Mr Wheal, and while it mentioned the family wanted 'space' it did not specifically request that they were not contacted.
    It is inaccurate to say that our reporter apologised for the news editor's judgment or said it was a bad call, and neither did we apologise for knocking on the door - we were just doing our job.
    Our reporter returned to the office to find an email from Mr Wheal which rather ironically urged us to 'call off our dogs'. Our reporter did say he was sorry that the family had felt upset by our inquiry, and he went on to speak to Mr Wheal in some detail and to get some tributes for Jamie.
    If Mr Wheal's account is accurate it does seem to me that some of the national press and magazines behaved appallingly - certainly when compared to our single knock on the door. I can understand his anger about that but do not think it is fair to tar us with the same brush.
    It's interesting that this blog condemns 'churnalism' yet criticises a local paper for seeking out a family to get the facts to back up a story that has been reported elsewhere.
    I also cannot understand how Mr Greenslade can condemn churnalism yet produce a blog post that is lifted in its entirety from another blog without giving the news organisations mentioned a chance to have their say..
    As this blog identifies me and publicly calls my judgment into question I'm surprised that I wasn't given the opportunity to defend myself. Mr Greenslade has not returned my tweets or emails, which I'm also surprised at since he has obviously found the time to write some new blog posts.
    None of this takes away from the fact that here we have a grieving family and a young boy who has lost his life in the most heartbreaking and tragic circumstances. I have no wish to cause any further distress to this family but I do think it is important to make sure both sides of any story are represented. In my judgment, that's what journalism is about.
    Graeme Patfield, news editor, The News, Portsmouth

  3. Just to add to my last post, we knocked on the door, once, and waited for an answer. It's slightly different from what most people would understand the term 'doorstepping' to mean.
    There is a debate to be had about how newspapers should behave in these tragic situations - but it is only a debate if both sides are allowed to give their version of events. Also apologies for presenting as 'anonymous' you can see who I am. GP

  4. In Graeme Patfield's original post of the above on Roy Greenslade's blog, he included this statement:

    "It's also worth pointing out that Mr Wheal's view of us may be clouded by the fact that he does some work for our rival paper, the Daily Echo, who broke the story in this case."

    Chris Wheal replied:

    You sent a reporter days late and after I had made myself available. You did not attempt to contact me.
    I did get an apology, in writing and verbally.
    I do not work for the Echo and never have. I have no idea how you came up with that notion but you have my number and could have called to check the accuracy of your statement. That is called journalism.
    Do you simply have poor standards, are you delusional or do you deliberately make things up?"

    To which Mr Patfield replied:

    I'd obviously been given some bad information as I now understand you are freelance. Apologies for that.
    Obviously this has turned into a public debate because of your blog and Mr Greenslade's taking up of the story, but it's not ideal to have an ongoing discussion in public.
    We have the highest standards and that is why I feel the need to defend ourselves when they are called into question.
    If you still have concerms then feel free to contact me.
    All the best

  5. @MacGuffin - thanks for adding that. I removed that reference from the repost because it was inaccurate, so so point repeating it. As you can see I was very quick to correct myself and regret the error. Others - for example Mr Greenslade - have not been so quick to respond to criticism. GP

  6. @Graeme - I think there was a point in repeating your inaccuracy as I think your statement about Chris's judgment being 'clouded' by working for a rival newspaper says quite a lot.

    Perhaps you could elaborate more on why you decided to bypass Chris to go straight to the family for comment? What you understood by the family wanting 'space'? And could you confirm or deny Chris's allegation that The News initially denied it was their reporter involved?

  7. @MacGuffin thanks for seeking to check the facts at last.
    Our crime reporter, who was off duty that weekend, was contacted by a press officer from Hampshire Police who said the family had complained about harassment.
    She said that as she was not working that weekend it was not her, and she was not aware whether a reporter had or had not been to the house.
    She also checked with the press officer that the press release had not asked that we did not contact the family, and he confirmed that it did not make that request.
    In responding to the allegation that we had harassed the family, she said that 'didn't sound like us'.
    It isn't like us at all - as I have said, we knocked on the door once and our reporter was told he was not welcome. We withdrew.

  8. Just to add that I have done a death knock, and the family was very happy to talk about their son.

    Many families are happy to talk to the local press when approached either to appeal for witnesses, or try and stop the same thing happening again, eg. "Make sure your child has a bike helmet."

    I hope that since this normally excellent blog is very fond of covering apologies, and lack of, it will make this debate clear and apologise to anyone wrongly accused of being a "Vulture."


  9. @Anonymous - the term 'vultures' was specifically aimed at those two organisations offering cash to this family within days of this tragedy and so no, there won't be an apology for that.

  10. I don't want to interupt this interchange, abd hope it continues, but I would like to add this:

    "while it mentioned the family wanted 'space' it did not specifically request that they were not contacted." - seriously? A family has to specify that wanting space means they do not want someone on their private property knocking on their door after their son has died?


    "@MacGuffin thanks for seeking to check the facts at last." Is this petualant teenage tone appropriate?

    "It's interesting that this blog condemns 'churnalism' yet criticises a local paper for seeking out a family to get the facts to back up a story that has been reported elsewhere."

    The critique of the (original) blog's use of other sources (which of course, are highlighting the point - and remember, it's a blog, not a newstory) again is petulant.

    Finally, the discussion of an apology, (editor says not done) also raises questions on either a lack of knowledge as to what goes on in the newsroom, or not telling the truth.

    If the locals are better than the nationals, then we are in a lot of trouble.

  11. The local paper was just doing it's job in trying to contact the family. Many local people would have known, and cared about, the family and the little boy involved.

    It was the paper's job to find out as much as it could from the people involved - it's called journalism.

    Rewriting press releases and quoting tweets or messages left on facebook or message boards, or rehashing garbage off some internet site - that's not journalism. Feel free to criticise that as much as you want but not a local paper doing it's job.

  12. Putting aside the Portsmouth News, would MacGuffin respond to this line "He says that while the nationals were 'lazy' and just relied on churnalism, most of the local media was good."

    I'd like to know, what you think defines "good" in this context?

  13. Carl - I should have put the word 'good' in quote marks as that was the term Chris used about the local media. I have made this change now. From what Chris says, they were good because they a) bothered to check the story out and b) called Chris, as the statement put out by the family requested.


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