No journalist takes any joy in having to do what’s known in the industry as a “death knock” following a tragedy.
The controversy surrounding the treatment of the family of 13-year-old Molly Lord, who died two weeks ago in a quad bike accident, has highlighted the fact that the ethics around approaching a grieving family are not clear cut.
Ultimately journalism — especially television journalism — is all about personal stories. It’s about hearing individuals speak in their own words. And there is no denying journalism is incredibly competitive, especially among the commercial networks.
No one wants to see someone at the centre of a story popping up on a rival network. Even if the boss doesn’t criticise you directly when this happens, everyone knows you have failed and there will be no shortage of journos in your newsroom whispering under their breath that they could have got the “talent” to talk (in TV we usually refer to the people in our stories as “talent”).
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The trouble with “door knocks” is that you never know what reaction you are going to receive.
Sometimes the families seem genuinely grateful to share their stories. They want to pay tribute to someone they may have lost. They bring out the photo albums, they search for video and they openly share their grief. This happens more than you would think.
Other times, people are shocked and angry you would even approach them and you walk away feeling like a sack of shit, knowing you have just added to their pain.
Reading Linda Goldspink-Lord’s Facebook post about the way Channel Seven covered her daughter’s death, I couldn’t help thinking it looked like standard operating procedure on the part of any of the networks. The journalist was on the property looking for someone to who might want to give comment. This is completely normal.
Obviously, time was an issue, and it might have been more sensible to wait for police to deal with the scene of the accident and for the family to start to come to terms with what has happened. But there is nothing strange about a journalist asking whether anyone has anything they may want to say.
The use of a helicopter also isn’t that unusual for these kinds of stories. Perhaps it should be.
But you have to remember, it’s unlikely anyone would have known they were dealing with the death of a child when the chopper took to the air.
The problem is that for the media it’s just another day at work. But families such as Molly Lord’s may only interface with the media like this once and only during tragic circumstances.
What we think is normal and ethical, can often feel is shocking and insensitive.
The trouble is, there is no accepted industry-wide standard about how to handle these things. So as is often the case when the rules are unclear, those willing to push the boundaries usually benefit, creating more pressure on those who want to act ethically.
A lack of clear guidelines benefits the dodgy and the desperately ambitious in our profession.
We also need to have a better discussion around the ethics of interviewing someone who you know is probably in a state of shock. We’ve all done it and nine times out of 10 people are much more likely to talk in this state.
But is it ethical? Would they be as willing to share their story 24 hours from now? If the answer is “no” you probably shouldn’t be putting them to tape.
And let’s not forget the audience also plays a part. If they didn’t watch, this stuff wouldn’t get to air.
They do, and it does.
Molly’s case again has sparked calls for better regulation of the media. But ultimately I think a better answer lies in the prudent use of social media. Twenty years ago the media was a one-way street, and if a news organisation treated someone poorly, very few people found out about it. Social media has changed all of that as Molly’s mother, Linda, has demonstrated.
Now, the “talent” can fight back, and deleting a grieving mother’s post will only make people more determined to share it online. The mainstream media is no longer running the show and as a result standards will inevitably improve with increased scrutiny.
Molly’s mother ended her Facebook post with two words for the guys at Seven: “You bastards.” Even when a “door knock” goes well, as a journalist you often walk away agreeing with those sentiments.