Sunday, 30 September 2012

How to be a journalist 40. The death knock (Part Two)

In my last post I dealt with how reporters should deal with a death knock. As always there is nothing - or at least very much - revelatory for experienced journalists. But then these tips are aimed at juniors and trainees who may yet have covered one. Again this is not an exhaustive list and all comments, suggestions and observations are welcome.

This latest posting concentrates on how to build up a picture of a person's life in a few questions. Again every circumstance is different so while this tries to cover everything you will still need to think on your feet and listen to the answers given.

You will also need to be aware of any on-going police action and/or the potential to libel. It will be part of your job to explain why you won't be able to include all their quotes. You could not for example quote a claim that a widow that a driver involved in a death crash was not paying attention. That is up to a coroner/court to decide. If at all possible steer them to something that will make a more general point without being unusable.

All of this said you are still looking for a line. This is not about simply writing a formulaic story along the lines of:

A family last night paid tribute to....

We could/do all write this a hundred times over. Sometimes the tragedy in and of itself is simply enough but keep in mind the family details are not revealed straight away in most cases. It could come an edition or two after the original story.

By then the immediate family will be aware, so too many of the extended family and friends as well, possibly even wider still. Or it has been revealed by a rival news organisation. All of which means that sticking to the formula is no good and why you need another line.

So assuming that you have managed to get a chat with the family and have checked relationships of the people you are talking to and double checked the details given to you what should you be asking:

1. Establish all the immediate family members and their relationships. You need names and ages. Don't assume this is all the family. You will also need to establish length of relationship to a partner. If their parents are still alive, any other family. If they are young you want to know about boyfriends or girlfriends has the family spoken to them? You want to get the general reaction from the family. I try to avoid asking "How do you feel?" and try, "I can't imagine how you feel, how would you describe it?".

2. Can you describe their personality? This isn't all about facts, it's about pure emotion. It covers a great deal of very personal information and what you are trying to do is convey their life in a few words. This is a catch-all question it allows the bereaved to talk in an open-ended manner about the deceased.

3. What were their hobbies/interests? Again this is detail that fleshes out a life. It also, as with many of the questions, can provide fresh avenues to chase. Most of the time this will simply not be necessary but never rule it out entirely. It may be worth asking if there is anyone else they think it is worth talking to.

4. What did they do for a living? And previously? Again this is about establishing the person's existence. Not everyone is defined by their work but some are and - for good or for ill - many people will be able to create an image of that person based on their work. Did they go to university? Previous employment etc. It's a sad but usually true that if the deceased is young, public school educated and went to Oxford or Cambridge the story is more likely to be picked up by nationals. For older men (born before 1945) it's worth considering if they conscripted into National Service. For children you will want to be establishing the school and favourite subjects.

5. Were there ever any worries about the situation in which they died? Does the family think they will take any action - legal/civil - in regards to the death? For example, a cyclist may have always been concerned about the particular junction in which the accident happened and had voiced those fears. Or perhaps they had had several near misses over the years or been involved in a non-fatal accident not so long ago.

6. Were they from the area the family home is in? Essentially this is about establishing their deep background. They may have moved there for work, or an immigrant looking for a better life, or to study or any other of thousands of other reasons. If so how long had they lived there for? Or they may simply have lived there all their lives. In the case of children why did their parents move there.

7. What were their hopes and dreams? This is about showing 'a life interrupted' a life that could have been if it had not been struck by tragedy. This is particularly poignant of younger lives that have yet to reach full potential. If not married consider asking if marriage plans had been discussed.

8. Have they ever previously appeared in the news before? We're back to catch all questions but remember the person you are interviewing has been through a great shock. Without knowing anything about the deceased you have to cover as much ground as you can in as few questions as possible.

9. Can I have a photo? Preferably one with the family and ideally one of them looking smart.

10. And finally. Is there anything I have missed that was important to their life that you would like to get across? Personally I also add if they would mind me calling again and always ask for a mobile number. This is where explaining that if you can check back the details with them can be useful.

I think I have covered most of the important elements, as always, I may have missed something crucial and would appreciate any comments adding to this list.

To keep up to date with future tips follow @journalismtips on Twitter.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

How to be a journalist 39. The death knock (Part One)

Without doubt one of the hardest, most emotionally draining jobs for the average reporter is the death knock. It is not, as many critics of the Press will have you believe, a simple act of voyeurism into grief. If you believe that you are in the wrong job - many do and many leave.
And if you find it is not emotionally draining than you ought to see someone about it. I've yet to meet anyone who doesn't feel that way.

The fact is we do an awful lot of these and you never quite get used to them. Not once. So why do we do them? A successful death knock will stop a death becoming just another statistic. It's much harder for those in authority to dismiss numbers than it is to ignore individuals. Bland excuses can be made, figures fudged, the truth bent, things swept under the carpet. Try doing that with a real person - an individual who has experienced pain.

It can also act as an obituary, sometimes but not always, something the family will want to hold on to as a keepsake.

And in the meantime, you as a reporter, will be accused of all manner of despicable behaviour. You will, for your efforts, be accused of intrusion, of being scum, of being a vulture, of preying on grief, of only being interested in selling papers, of being uncaring, of being these and many, many more things.

Which is why you have to believe in what you are doing, in why you believe their story could make a difference. Not only for the family, in the short and medium term, but for others in the long run. And it can make a difference. And, no, I do not believe I am self-deluding. I genuinely believe - as you should - that as reporters what we do is important and can make a difference. Of course I am not saying it will prevent all future deaths of a similar nature; but in some cases it may help highlight and focus energy on a particular area, ie a rat run, a cycling accident at a junction, an industrial accident, a murder.

Also don't go making assumptions, that too is a very bad idea. Being sensitive is essential. Firstly, in order to show you are a member of the human race but also to win over a family's confidence.

Despite all of this we are still there to tell a person's story. If the door is slammed in your face you have failed. I say this because, hard as it is, you should do the knock. Simply not bothering or relying on social media is a disgrace to yourself and your trade.

So hopefully I've established why they are necessary. Many may well disagree, that is their prerogative.

1. Make assumptions. Each death should be treated purely on its own merits.
2. Ever say, 'I know how it must feel'. Unless you can back that statement up by talking about the death of one of your own loved ones and feel it may help in making a connection. In general avoid meaningless platitudes.
3. Rely entirely on social media UNLESS there is no other possible way of doing it. Even then ask to speak to family members in person or by phone.
4. Lack confidence. Yes, it is a nerve wracking experience for the reporter but a polite, professional manner is better than a stammering bunch of nerves, which will only make you sound shifty and not inspire confidence that you will be able to tell the family's story in a way they would want. Indeed a bad approach can and will engender distrust.
5. Be scruffy. Again, you are knocking on a door unannounced, this is about showing you are a professional.
6. Go mob handed to a doorstep. If several newspaper reporters, agency reporters, photographers, camera crews and radio journalists turn up at once send two trusted representatives who can then share the information. There is nothing like an undignified scrabble to upset the family. But trust in your fellow reporters is key.
7. Rush. If a family is good enough to talk to you give them the time they need to tell their story. If you have a deadline looming do explain you have to file but be prepared to stay longer.
8. Ever offer money for someone's story.

1. Apologise for disturbing them. This is your acknowledgment that you are an outsider at an intensely personal time but avoids the impersonal platitudes (I'm sorry for your loss etc) which the family may well find odd coming from a total stranger.
2. Follow the family's wishes. But if they ask you to go away do remember to ask if it would be possible to come back at some later stage. Ask when that would be convenient.
3. Check everything you've been told by the authorities. Including the spellings of the deceased's name and age. Police and coroners can make mistakes. If this is for print then errors cannot be easily rectified. That in itself can be very upsetting. Indeed even if a family say no to an interview it is still worth asking if you can double check the details.
4. Work out what you are going to say beforehand. It will allow you to make the key points as to why you believe their story is important and will, hopefully, reduce your nervousness.
5. Establish you are speaking to an adult and, where possible, their relationship to the deceased.
6. Remember a person did not become important the moment they died. They were important to their friends and family in life. Build up a picture of that life as best you can.
7. Ask for a photograph that best sums up their life. Preferably with their family.
8. Consider asking the family would they like to be read out any tribute piece. This is controversial in newspapers so check with your newsdesk and it's certainly not something that is advisable in every circumstance but I've rarely - if ever - found it to be a problem. A brief run through ensures there are no misunderstandings; that the details are correct; that you or the family have not left out something that is important; and it helps build up trust with the family. (You must explain it may be edited before going in the paper.)

NEXT: Building up a picture of someone's life on a death knock.

For further reading see Jackie Newton excellent blog here on death knocks.

And here's the Press Gazette report on her research. (I see that many of the negative comments have been removed.)

And here's a personal and view from Australian journalist Sarah Harris on why they are important.

And here's Roy Greenslade offering another view - note he didn't speak to the newspaper he was referring to in the story.

And another Roy Greenslade piece an extract fromThe phone hacking scandal: journalism on trial is by Jackie Newton and Sallyanne Duncan.

To keep up to date with future tips follow @journalismtips on Twitter.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Journalism Tips 38. How to get a job in journalism: Intros

There are two types of intro: The straight and the dropped. This deals with the former.

Some years ago the Daily Telegraph would boast about the length of its intros - 80-90-100 words plus were, if an exception, not uncommon. Particularly, if memory serves, in its cricket coverage. The writing was, of course, beautifully crafted by professionals at the top of their game... They could get away with it, you cannot.

Like many of the "rules" on the blog this is not hard and fast but a guideline - the problem is not that you occasionally break it but that you break it often.

So if your intros are regularly hitting 30-40 words you are doing something wrong. This really isn't a matter for debate. You are writing for a newspaper not a specialist manual.

Being direct does not mean dumbing down. Nor does it mean - heaven for fend - tabloid. It means being to the point. If it makes you feel any better remember you are part of the Twitter generation (well most of you).

It means that your average reader will be used to 140 character long sentences - including the spaces. That's around 22-24 word mark (I know, I've checked my own Twitter personal account - Anthony_Bonnici if you're interested - and several others, from both tabloid and broadsheet writers - to see how they compare).

So now 25 doesn't seem so bad, does it?

Here's a random example:

Channel 4 has cited concerns over security as the reason for cancelling a planned screening at its headquarters this week of a documentary film questioning the origins of Islam. (29 words)

Channel 4 has cited security concerns as the reason for cancelling a planned screening at its headquarters this week of a documentary questioning Islam's origins. (25 words)

Or this from Associated Press (The Americans are masters of the verbose intro as they cram in too much information and reveal very little):

SEATTLE (AP) — Raffaele Sollecito, whose budding love affair with American exchange student Amanda Knox helped land him in an Italian prison for four years, maintains the couple's innocence in a new book but acknowledges that their sometimes bizarre behavior after her roommate's killing gave police reason for suspicion.

So let's look at the facts here:

1. The name: Raffaele Sollecito
2. He was on the verge of a love affair with 
3. Girlfriend's name: Amanda Knox
4. She was an American
5. And an exchange student
6. He was jailed
7. For four years
8. But continues to claim his innocence
9. In a new book
10. He admits their bizarre behaviour was suspicious
11. Amanda Knox's roommate was killed

The problem here is the reporter has not made up his mind what the important facts. And so rather than leaving something out he has put it all in — and that's why the sentence is 46 words long.

Why does it matter? Getting into the habit of tighter sentences is a useful lesson to learn, for a start. Now most "broadsheets" no longer are — they've taken the compact form. Editorial space, especially with ever squeezed budgets, is at a premium.

People's attention spans are certainly not what they were. Think I'm talking about dumbing down... try a copy of The Times, say, 100 years ago... 50 years ago... Hell! Even 20 years ago.

Here's a random article found on the Internet:

No mention of the latest deaths and not a hashtag in sightAs you can see, quite painful. Some might even say it's the future.

Let's put aside the general style and look at the second par.

The coroner for South-West Lancashire opened the inquest on the bodies of those who were killed, but, after taking formal evidence of identification in the case of nine, he adjourned the inquiry until next week. 

A total of 35 words.

Who else was he going to open the inquest for? And for all this we don't know the name of the South-West Lancashire coroner or, indeed, any details of the actual victims of this terrible railway accident.

Someone was clearly being paid by the word (actually they probably were).

Incidentally, seeing as we were talking about intros, this is what the Twitter generation would see:

Yesterday two more victims of the terrible railway accident which occurred on Tuesday evening at Ditton Junction, on the London and North-We

My own efforts for Twitter are this:

Two more people found in the wreckage of the Ditton Junction railway disaster died of their injuries yesterday taking the death toll to 15.

or with hashtags

Two more people caught in the #Ditton Junction #railway disaster wreckage died from their injuries yesterday bringing the death toll to 15.The coroner for South-West Lancashire opened the inquest on the bodies of those who were killed...

I'm sure people could do better.

To keep up to date with future tips follow @journalismtips on Twitter.

The point is lengthy sentences do not necessarily mean serious journalism. It can mean lazy flabby writing.

Ignore all these points if you are being paid by the word.