Death knocks aren't the problem - it's the digital onslaught.

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Dominic Ponsford takes up the digital doorstepping point, and misses the point:

I would argue that when you are writing a story about someone’s death or serious injury it would be disrespectful not to contact the family. This gives them a chance to put their comments on the record and gives the reporter an opportunity to make sure they get their facts right.

And then he goes on to write about the problems and benefits of the traditional death knock:

It is also worth noting that such interviews are a huge source of public interest stories. In my own experience as a local newspaper journalist I was once tasked with doorstepping a father-of-four whose wife had committed suicide in dramatic circumstances earlier that day.

I was in two minds about even getting out of the car. It would have been easy to lie to the editor and say the man wasn’t in.

When I knocked on the door and explained I was from the local paper he welcomed me in and handed me a statement. In it he attacked local health bosses and explained that he had been trying for weeks to get his wife sectioned for her own safety.

The 1990s death knock doesn’t work in 2017

The problem is that he’s writing about the 1990s death knock, not the ones that happen in the late part of the 2010s. And his piece completely fails to address the social media barrage that modern relatives undergo in this situation (and have been doing so for at least a decade).

It takes until an update from an anonymous reader that we actually get to the heart of the matter:

Equally your remark that people should just tell journalists “I don’t want to talk to you” doesn’t address the huge emotional fatigue placed on someone by repeated phone calls, text messages, emails, notes under the door, Facebook messages, and tweets. Imagine having 20 automated “Hi I heard you were in a car accident” phone calls in a single day, and that this day happens to be the day that your son died.

More to the point, the single local face at your door has been replaced by a digital barrage of national and international journalists and “journalists”, at the time in your life that you’re least well placed to manage that onslaught. You might say “just ignore them” – but they’re coming through the very device you’re using to keep in contact with friends and relatives: your phone.

The journalist at your door is no longer a singular chance to tell your loved one’s story – but just another wave in the endless tide.

The death knock that Ponsford describes can no longer exist, because the new context is the relative being besieged on social media before the local journo has got to his car, let alone arrived on the doorstep.

The doorstep death knock is too late

And, as we saw, by the time someone does get to the doorstep, it’s too late. The relative is already on the defensive:

I have dealt with 50+ journos online today. Two found my mobile number. This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive.

— Dan Hett (@danhett) May 23, 2017

Note that he’s already dealt with 50 journalists before the death knock arrives. The reaction to the Telegraph journalist might have been very different if they were the one and only person he’d heard from that day.

And, unfortunately, the Police releasing the names of victims has little influence on this, because journalists are already trawling social media looking for possible victims. I saw this vividly during the Shoreham air crash a couple of years ago. I live less than a mile from the crash site, and it was clear that some titles were using posts in the local Facebook group asking about missing relatives to speculatively identify victims, before they were officially named.

So again I ask: how do we make the death knock work and work ethically in the social media age?

death knocksdigital doorsteppingdoorsteppingethicsJournalismSocial Media

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.