Death knocks and real lives – A story every journalist should read

A blog post by a long-time friend and colleague, and one of the most extraordinary people I know, Chris Wheal, has prompted some interesting debate in incredibly difficult circumstances for Chris and his family. Chris’s young nephew Jamie died in a tragic accident recently and Chris has been helping his family deal with the media response to the story. His blog is moving and thoughtful and, as NUJ organiser Chris Morley says in the comments and as Roy Greenslade says in his blog post on the subject, it is something that anyone interested in journalism should read.

I’m in touch with Chris on a daily basis as he’s lead blogger on the Daily Finance website which I also write for. And, as I said, he’s a mate. The DF team heard quite early on about the tragedy when Chris told us he wouldn’t be able, understandably, to play his usual role in the immediate aftermath of hearing the news. I’ve had a few private discussions with him and, obviously, passed on condolences. So I haven’t contributed to any of the debate that has broken out on Chris and Roy’s blog. That’s partly because, to be honest, I felt a bit uneasy about discussing a friend’s personal grief in public. I think Chris was quite brave to go public, and the fact that he did is utterly in line with his attitude to being an active citizen. I’m not sure I would have been so brave in similar circumstances.

Valuable insight

But the story is now out there. It has been interesting because, as Chris Morley says, the “insight is valuable to our trade, seeing us as others do”. And also because I spent many years working in the world of true life journalism, first on Take a Break in its heyday, then on a number of other titles in the same field. The genre is viewed with a lot of suspicion, especially by media types. But it is popular and there is a real quality to the work that many of the journalists I worked with do.

The truth, however uncomfortable some of the comments indicate the authors find the process, is that incidents such as this are stories. They are stories because people want to read them, and people want to read them because they are about the very basic issues of life and death and family that are so important to us all. So it’s always seemed to me that saying the process of covering such events is ‘bad’ or ‘unnecessary’ is akin to sticking your head in the sand.

And this is the point of Chris’s post. He knows how the media works, which is why he established himself as the point of contact. The criticism of the local paper which sent a journalist to do the infamous ‘death-knock’ comes because it did so after a statement issued by Chris on behalf of the family clearly stated that he, and not the grieving parents, should be the person who the media contacted. Although the local paper’s new editor did apologise for this and his subsequent, awful, mistake in saying Chris’s blog comments were motivated by the fact that he worked for a rival paper – Chris does not and it would have been simple to establish that – that particular unfortunate strand of discussion did indicate the laager mentality the press tends to get into.

Cause and response

Which is again something I find interesting. It’s a bit of standing joke among journalists that we are more unpopular than any other trade. And yet millions and millions of people read the stuff we produce. Thereafter comes the chicken and egg argument, do people want this stuff just because we give it to them, or do we just respond to what people want?

What comes out of this story is how simple it would be for the media to be sensitive while also doing its job. It’s easy to become blasé when dealing with tragedy on a daily basis, perhaps even necessary in the same way nurses and doctors have to harden themselves to what they see. If that lesson is taken from this particular case, something good will have come from a tragic situation.

#ChrisWheal #deathknock #reallifejournalism

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