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<p>Mike Bowers/The Global Mail</p>

Mike Bowers/The Global Mail

Vulture Journalism

Some focussed on the social-media blunder when Seven News removed the anguished Facebook comment of a bereaved mother who’d been harrassed by their TV reporter. But the odious culture of the “death knock” is as old as journalism itself. It’s just getting worse.

The first lesson in the psychology of death knocks, taught to police rounds cadets at the late, not much lamented, afternoon tabloid The Brisbane Telegraph, was 'Never phone first'. If you phoned the newly bereaved, they were more likely to tell you to piss off. The old hands deemed it was harder for the family to say no when they were face-to-face with an uncomfortable young reporter.

The second lesson was, leave the photographer in the car. Allegedly this was also about psychology; the bereaved were more likely to be spooked by the appearance of two people, one of them festooned with camera gear. I'm not sure, though, whether this was not at least partly a fabrication of the photographers, who tended to be older and wiser, and slower if people set the dog loose. If they let you in, if it was apparent they were going to talk, that's when you would call the snapper in.

The third lesson was that your chances of success were greater if you timed it right. There is a time not long after the death when the shocked relatives will talk to almost anyone.

Thus went the simple psychological calculus of death knocks.

I actually had a pretty good success rate, I think because I looked so genuinely sorry to be there. "Come in," they would say, all too often. "Have a cup of tea." And so you would ask your awkward questions about a death of which you knew a little and a life of which you knew nothing.

I always left it to the photographer to do the really intrusive stuff — asking to see the family photo album, asking to borrow pictures, et cetera.

The third lesson was that your chances of success were greater if you timed it right. There is a time not long after the death when the shocked relatives will talk to almost anyone.

Get in, get the stuff, get out, get it written for the next edition, which in those days was never more than a couple of hours away. There was little joy in a 'success', and if you came back a failure — saying, truthfully or not, that there was no one home — you were likely to be sent back.

I hated it. But at first, being young and eager to please, I did it. Later on, I began to use my own initiative, conspiring on occasion with the photographer to skip it. Other times I could see the point to a death knock; where the deceased had been the victim of crime, for example, a story might help the police investigation.

But mostly, it served no useful purpose that I could see.

It was a relief to be moved off police rounds — I could never establish a rapport with the cynical, racist, sexist individuals who ran Joh Bjelke-Petersen's force anyway — and ultimately into politics, where there were no innocent victims.

I'll offer a limited defence of what I did as a death-knocker: I never approached it cynically. I tried not to sensationalise, but to produce human stories. I never tried to make them cry — though many did cry. I certainly never staked them out or stalked them, or snooped around their properties. Or conspired to take unpermitted photos of their grief.

Director of News at Seven Sydney Chris Willis responds to the torrent of criticism on Seven News Sydney's Facebook page.

In short, I never behaved like Australia's commercial TV networks, whose sad excuse for news increasingly involves the presentation of gossip and sensation, tragedy and trivia, serving no real purpose of public information. It's become a matter of the cynical catering to the interests of the prurient.

And while we're at it, we shouldn't let newspapers off the hook. They too have become increasingly dependent on this kind of stuff as a cheap alternative to substantive reportage.

But our case in point today is an electronic media one: Channel Seven's recent handling of the death of a child, Molly Lord, 13, in a quad-bike accident.

Well, Molly's mother, Linda Goldspink-Lord, was outraged at the way the network went about reporting it. She wrote an angry post on Seven News Sydney's Facebook page about the "pain and harassment" the network had inflicted. She alleged she had been filmed with her daughter's body, from a network helicopter. Footage was put up on the network's website before she had even told all the members of her family. She said a reporter — presumably from Seven — was wandering around the house and stables on her property, "whilst Molly was still on the ground".

"Channel 7," she wrote, "you are a disgrace and what should have been a private moment between a mother and her daughter was exploited for the sake of an exclusive story. You bastards".

“Channel 7 you are a disgrace and what should have been a private moment between a mother and her daughter was exploited for the sake of an exclusive story. You bastards. ”

The public rallied to her. According to a Sydney Morning Herald report 32,000 people "liked" her post.

Seven responded by taking it down, which was of course the stupidest thing it could have done.

She posted again after it was taken down berating them this time for their cover-up. Then a support site, Justice for Linda Goldspink-Lord, attracted hundreds of comments and thousands more "likes".

And, belatedly, Seven sort of apologised.

A statement attributed to Chris Willis, Director of News at Seven Sydney, was released, saying Goldspink-Lord's comments were removed from the site "in error".

"Taking into account her understandable distress over the coverage of Molly's death, I did ask for the footage to be taken down. That happened but unfortunately her remarks were deleted as well. They are now being restored to our Facebook page," the statement said.

"I would also like to stress that we have re-examined our reports into Molly's tragic death and can find no video showing Ms Goldspink-Lord hugging her daughter."

He tried to spread the blame, saying Seven was not the only network to visit the family's property.

He said the station's reporter left "immediately" on being told the family would not talk.

<p>Mike Bowers/The Global Mail</p>

Mike Bowers/The Global Mail

A word cloud compiled from 500 of the 1000 posts in support of the Lord family's complaint against the media on Seven News Sydney's Facebook page

We note the statement included no denial of shooting from a chopper and no denial of a reporter roaming about the property. We sought to speak with Willis, but he didn't get back to us. Anyway, the statement ended: "Our reporters and camera crews know that grieving families have to be approached with sensitivity and compassion."

Indeed, Seven's reporters should know they don't have to do it at all. Point 11 of the Australian Journalists Association code of ethics says: "Respect private grief and personal privacy. Journalists have the right to resist compulsion to intrude." (My emphasis.)

The sad fact of the matter, though, is that death knocks are not just here to stay, but are now more intrusive than ever. It's not just some nervous kid reporter knocking at the door anymore, but rapid-response teams of coiffured bimbos and himbos who descend on the bereaved with practised looks of concern, with helicopters and high-tech transmission equipment.

It's awful, but what can you do? Too many people mistake this stuff for news.

9 comments on this story
by Mark

I am a media veteran of 30 years experience, 20 years with Melbourne's largest selling paper. You have no idea how many death knocks I went on as a photographer. I was pushed, bullied and cajoled by the COS of the day to come up with a result..To make sure the kid I had working with me tried, and, when sent back, again and again, tried even harder. I remember on one occasion, when a family had been killed in a car crash on the way to school, being told by the COS to go to every school in the area, ask who hadn't turned up at school and ask for a picture of them...This COS became the editor of the paper...Ethics, compassion? A long second place in journalism. Any wonder I now work at a hardware store???

July 25, 2012 @ 6:04pm
by Peter

It was one of these experiences that propelled me out of journalism.
You tell it very well. Thank you.

July 25, 2012 @ 6:22pm
by Glenn Campbell

The "Death Knock" the thing I hated most, the thing I feared most...there is nothing as naked and confronting as grief, especially if you are a young, gormless photographer/journalist confronted with intruding on the rawest, most painful time in a strange, unknown family's existence.
I can remember the train crash in the blue mountains over a decade ago where the reporter almost had a nervous breakdown from the stress after 6 death knocks in a row, I ran into " Uncle Bob" an older photographer from the SMH with the same grim look on his face, from too many times ' can we have a photo?" where was this competition coming from? Why are we doing this?
Laziness? Possibly, it's easier to fill a page with a copy photo of the recently deseacsd than to find out the nuts and bolts of a disaster 6 hours after it happened.
The 2002 Bali bombings, were another memorable experience where I was dispatched with a reporter to cover the southern highlands, trawl through grief and despair, send back the photos and quotes.... walking into the home of Josh Iliffe's parents in Bowral will remain one of the most poignant moments in my life, where myself and reporter Sarah Bryden Brown were invited in to pore over the last photos of their son alive, group shots of a bunch of lads sitting on the verandah bar of the Sari club, going through the faces, dead, missing...he hasn't turned up yet...dully photographed and transmitted back to Holt St, when we left Josh's Mum Yvonne hugged us both and said thanks for being interested in Josh...She gave Sarah one of the dozens of sympathy bouquets and said " here you look like you need these.... we walked on...stopped and hugged for a small eternity in that Bowral driveway.
I spent many years thinking about death knocks and why I hated them so…was it the intrusion? Was it the shame? Or was it thanking Christ it’s not me?
I laid it to rest with a photo exhibition called SHRINE where I was documenting roadside memorials left behind by grieving relatives in the Northern Territory…the crosses made poignant photographs. But the ones left behind needed to be heard, so I did what I hated most about journalism…I intruded, I asked and I documented…sometimes those left behind need to be heard by all of us. To know, to listen and to grieve. Because there for the grace of god go all of us.

Glenn Campbell is a contributing photographer for the AGE and Sydney Morning Herald.

July 25, 2012 @ 11:29pm
by Carlos

This kind of activity can not be considered journalism, and I believe it is a mistake to think that it is.
Furthermore it is in the interests of society to prevent this kind of depravity.

July 26, 2012 @ 7:46am
by Joanna Mendelssohn

Even the ABC is not exempt from this behaviour. When my colleague and friend Nick Waterlow was killed, an ABC television journalist wandered through the inside of St Mary's Cathedral at the funeral service. She was wearing a surprisingly bulky coat. That night footage of the mourners, which should have been private, was splashed on national television.
I first heard of Nick's death from a Sydney Morning Journalist, Geesche Jacobsen, who phoned me at 11 pm on the night he was killed to ask about the "murder suicide", claiming that one of the great generous figures of contemporary art in Australia had killed his daughter, and then himself. I understand now that the police had not released the names of the dead and she was seeking evidence of his identity by trying to shock me. All I could do was to call her a liar, as I knew Nick was a good man and had spoken with him that afternoon.
The SMH published the story identifying Nick Waterlow well before many of his closest friends knew of it. The journalist has never apologised for her behaviour.
From my observation there is no difference between the behaviour of the "quality press" and the tabloids.
I cancelled my hard copy subscription to the SMH, breaking the habit of a lifetime. When they phoned to ask me why, I told them that I never again want to read a front page story like the one run the day after Nick and Chloe Waterlow died.

July 26, 2012 @ 10:37am
by Ian Hart

Glen Campbell's Vimeo response is as fine an example of sympathetic journalism as I've seen. Thank you.

July 26, 2012 @ 11:52am
Show previous 6 comments
by Heather

My 1st death knock was to the home of a Greek family whose matriarch had been killed in a hit-and-run. No-one seemed to speak English. They thought I was a mourner so they ushered me into the dining room where the deceased lay in an open coffin on the dining table.

July 26, 2012 @ 12:42pm
by Gus

The ideas expressed by this journo should be heeded by some journos of the NT News. I do not think they(NT News) have fallen to such low levels...yet.
The sentiments expressed in this article should be taken in a far more wide- reaching perspective by many journos reporting for shabby tabbies that dumb down their "readers".
(I am on-board The Global Mail because there is a distinct lack of crap articles.)

July 28, 2012 @ 9:28am
by Your Right To Grieve

Like you pointed out, the MEAA Code of Ethics says that Journalists have the right to resist compulsion to intrude. Pressue to get a story is one thing, but it shouldn't let one push ethical boundaries to get a story. Was that footage of Mrs Goldspink-Lord with her daughter Molly really in the public interest? I don't think it was.

We're a journalism student run campaign looking to change ethics in the Australian media, particularly protecting people's right to grieve, and not have an incident like the handling of Molly Lord's tragic death happen to anyone else. We're eager to keep this discusion going

October 15, 2012 @ 3:59pm
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