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.

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