Monday, 24 August 2009

"I'm really sorry to bother you but......."

Everyone has their own opening line for a death knock.
I quite like a bit of semi-sincere contrition - before I ask for a picture of their dead baby.
Make like I don't want to be there. And the truth is I mostly don't.
I must have doorstepped hundreds of grieving families and it still doesn't get any less nerve-wracking as I crunch up the gravel repeating the deceased's name over and over in my head so I don't blurt out the wrong one.
I still remember my first and I play over in my mind, on occasion, the very worst.
When I was freelancing every job seemed to be a death knock. I used to joke to people I met outside of work that if I ever came to their door with a smile and a handshake it meant someone in their family had just been fucked up.
That initial feeling of dread as you approach the knock never leaves, however. Will there be tears, smiles or threats. Will they understand I am doing my job or decide I have personally affronted them and unleash the hounds.
Some swear or abuse me, calling me 'scum' , others welcome me in and get the teas on. You can never tell which reaction you will get.
I once got chased by one guy in his car for about five miles after he beat up my snapper. And his son had only been blinded.
My 'favourite' death knocks are the one where you have talked the relative round and, just as they are peeling open the family album, the spouse comes home and goes spastic mental.
I have been tossed many a time. I now try to retain hold of the collect as I am physically thrown from the homestead.
It's a part of the job I dislike, but there is no greater feeling than walking away from the house quotes in your notebook and pic in paw knowing full well you just scooped everyone in town.
In a completely unrepresentative survey, I do find that families living in less salubrious areas tend to be a bit more forthcoming and open than the wealthy who are often the most abusive.
Women tend to be more polite than men, and parents seem to want to talk more about death through illness than those lost to violence or accident. Presumably they have had longer to come to terms with it.
I have only been hit twice during this job. Both on death knocks. I took the punches and considered them a form of involuntary penance.
I have come to terms with performing death knocks but, even after all these years and all those slammed doors, I still can't fully justify them to myself.
We claim that we are writing a tribute to the dear departed. Generally horse shit.
We say that it is cathartic for the family to talk of their loss. Crap.
We believe there is a public interest in knocking on a family's door shortly after their son/daughter was blown up in a terrorist attack. Bollocks.
We want to launch an appeal against guns/knives/leukaemia/death in general. Lies.
In reality we tell the family's anything to get through the door - to get a bit of background, a smiley picture, a grieving family shot - just so your nib becomes a down page, your lead becomes the splash.
You basically want a story and the dead scout's family is the best opportunity this week.
I am happy with this.
I am not saying the resultant story can not be something of value.
Be it a tearful appeal for a son's killer to come forward or a plea for funds to save other little crack babies.
Some death knocks forge relationships with the family and the reporter that can last years.
And this is why we do them across the country day in, day out.
But I can't pretend that the initial death knock is nothing more than cold calling for a tale.
Some you win, some you lose.
But there is no lofty ideal behind it.


  1. Haven't done a death knock for a fair while now but I reckon I'll probably have to do one again soon.
    Like you, I don't want to be there - who would? - but it's just a question of gritting your teeth and getting on with it. Occasionally I have thought about telling the desk no-one was in, but I've never actually done that. I've always steeled myself and knocked.
    When they do come off, it's undoubtedly a buzz. You've entered the lion's den and come back with something, even if it's just some lion dung.
    To me, it's a question of being as polite as possible and they'll either say yes or no - and there really is no way of telling which it will be, although I do agree that as a general rule of thumb the posher the neighbourhood, the less likely they will talk, and that women are more likely to talk than men.
    Never been beaten up but came very close to it when a grief-crazed father hammered on my window and ran up the road after my car. The fact that I was stuck at a junction, waiting to execute a right turn into a busy road during rush hour on a Friday made this even scarier.
    I don't have a moral problem with death knocks - I haven't checked but I dare say some really important stories have sprung from them over the years. Most of the time, though, you're right, it's just another story - and one the grieving family may or may not want told.
    Like you I use that handy little phrase "tribute piece". This obviously makes it sound like you're doing them a massive favour, but generally it is true: you are looking to write something positive about the dead person. After all, you don't see many headlines saying "Dead man was an utter cunt, says family", do you? Although I always enjoy reading between the lines when people are described as "no angel" or "a loveable rogue"...
    I have sometimes wondered whether having a reporter knocking at your door when you're newly bereaved would be distressing. I like to think that if that reporter is professional and polite their presence really doesn't add significantly to anyone's suffering. That's what I like to think, anyway, but I genuinely don't know whether it's true and I hope I never have cause to find out.

  2. Christ, give me a death knock over a golden wedding any day.
    "So, what is the secret to a long and happy marriage?"

  3. Worst death knock I ever did was when a kid suffering cancer finally expired on his father's shoulders at Disneyland. The appalling tragedy coupled with the step-by-step story of his horrible decline had a bizarre effect on me. I got a fit of the giggles and tried desperately to disguise it as a coughing fit, even collapsing to the floor at one point. Still feel ashamed and bemused about it. Never happened before or since.

  4. I once did a death door knock where a kid, boy of 10, had drowned in a pond during the school hols.
    A gang of relatives came to the door to tell me to get lost. As this was happening, the poor boy's mother came down the stairs, having been alerted by the noise.
    She asked what I wanted and I said 'to talk about Peter so that we get everything right'.
    She insisted I come in and took me upstairs.... into the little chap's bedroom.
    We sat on his bed, going through pictures, his school reports, toys, football shirt, etc for nearly an hour.
    About 10 mins in, I asked 'Are you really sure about this?'
    She said that everyone in her family was trying to avoid talking about her son, not even saying his name, when that's all she wanted to talk about.
    She cried occasionally, I felt a bit sniff, sniff myself... but we both got what we wanted out of it.
    After the paper came out, but before the funeral, due to inquest opening etc, I sorted for the funeral notice to go prominently in the BMDS free of charge.
    We kept in touch, one or the other ringing each other every couple of months or so, until I moved jobs.
    And all the time I was aware that while I felt genuine compassion for this woman.... when it came down to it a lot of my involvement was really about getting The Story.

  5. Best place I ever worked had a sort of Goth girl reporter we called 'Death Watch'. Always dressed from head to foot in black, plus black hair and what looked like black eyes to complete the look.
    She ravenously volunteered to do all the death knocks, on her patch or not. And her strike rate of getting in the door was exceptional.
    So if you had one that you didn't fancy, there was always Death Watch to send in your place.
    Havent seen her byline in ages so I often wonder what happened to her and whether she left the industry to become an undertaker, or pathologist's assistant perhaps.

  6. I am loving these comments. We had a great girl in our office as well. She absolutely hated doing them but she had a 100 per cent strike rate so every time another reporter failed she was sent out. We called her the Grim Reaper.

  7. in my old place i was known as the angel of death - got every damn death knock going and they used to say anyone getting a visit or phone call from me certainly wasn't celebrating something.