Intruding on grief . . . interviewing the bereaved . . .students’
stories of unwelcome assignments . . . can doorstep trickery be
justified? . . . the pathologist’s slide-show . . . disturbing
thoughts from the coroner . . .
There’s always a first time. All reporters have to do it sooner or later. Someone has been killed in a car-crash, a bomb incident, a train smash, an accident at work. ‘Get round there,’ says the news editor or the chief reporter. ‘See if they’ve got a decent picture of him. Get a few if you can, before anyone else gets’em. Go on, then. Get going . . .’
Opinions are divided as to how you can prepare young reporters for this most unwelcome of assignments, if indeed you can prepare them. ‘Be sympathetic,’ say some seniors. ‘Don’t be sympathetic - just ask the questions,’ say others. Many juniors are offered no advice at all that might help them when they first knock nervously on a door and say ‘Oh hello, I’m from the Gazette. I’m sorry to trouble you, but I wonder if . . .’
We launched Sheffield’s formal ‘intrusion into grief’ sessions as the result of an evening newspaper editor’s displeasure when, not long after completing the pre-entry course, one of his juniors openly rebelled on his first mission to interview a bereaved family. Approached hesitantly about the death of her husband, a woman had apparently called the unlucky reporter a callous, insensitive snooper who ought to know better than to compound her family’s misery by banging on her door at a time like this. It was cruel intrusion, she said, intended only to increase the paper’s circulation, and should not be allowed. Many a young reporter would have made a hurried apology and departed hastily. But, blown sideways by the unexpected onslaught, this fellow found himself sympathising as she devastatingly demolished what little confidence he had been able to summon up moments earlier. Not only did he agree with her, he suggested she call at the office to tell the editor all this to his face. She did so, it seems . . . and the editor, shaken by the intensity of her attack, turned up in college demanding to know why a one-year course did not prepare recruits for this particular task. We told him the truth, that the subject always randomly raised its head at some stage, often in answer to a question from a far-sighted student who could foresee problems in that area. But, from that day on, every group of students that passed through Richmond College had an hour-and-a-half debate about the tricky contentious business of intruding into other people’s grief.
For the pre-entry students, the subject was academic in the sense that they had nothing on which to base their widely-varying and often strongly-held opinions. But the first-year block-release groups, whose members had all been reporters for around eight or nine months, always provided vivid stories of past ordeals - and, by a bizarre mechanism of fate, it always turned out that almost exactly half of the group members had already made at least one trembling visit to a ‘house of death’. Newspaper reporters tend to swagger in their dealings with the public, but within the four walls of the lecture-room I have heard countless youngsters confess to their enormous unease and agitation in the presence of grieving relatives. The first such encounter is a hurdle to be cleared. Those with it behind them told their stories readily . . . and the rest fired eager questions. Were they nasty to you? Were the people crying? Did you take notes or just talk? Did you sympathise? What were your first words on the doorstep? Did they let you have a photograph? Have you been punched on the nose?
I heard hundreds of testimonies. There were a few nightmare stories - one girl had a box of photographs emptied over her head by a distraught woman who screamed ‘Take the lot, take the lot,’ and one chap was roughly ejected by a burly son who commendably saw himself as protector of his widowed mother. But nine times out of ten the experience was far less terrifying than the quaking reporters had expected. Many of the trainees, indeed, spoke of kindly relatives who sympathised with them - ‘I wouldn’t like your job, love. Would you like a cup of tea?’
When I was a junior reporter in the 1950s I was often conducted into the half-light of a curtained front room to see a corpse in a coffin. I would see four or five a week and I became accustomed to murmuring agreement with the platitudes that flow at such times. I remember, in a tiny cottage, sitting almost on the feet of the white-sheeted figure who was taking up most of the sofa and whose life’s achievements I was chronicling in my notebook. But times have changed. Few of our trainees had set eyes on a corpse and they frankly admitted that they dreaded doing so for the first time. The many little mysteries and taboos that still surround death were a niggling source of unease for these youngsters who knew they had chosen a profession that would inevitably sometimes lead them along life’s gloomier pathways. A few real faint-hearts, in fact, had already made up their minds that they would try to avoid such horrors by specialising in wedding reports or flower-arranging. I played the role of wise old lecturer at the front of the class. But, as one earnest reporter after another recounted his or her real-life experiences, there was little I needed to add to the vivid lessons that were being learned. Those lessons could be summarised thus . . .
Don’t put off your visit - it was best, everyone agreed, to meet the bereaved as soon as possible, before other reporters had started to call or ring.Those on weekly papers, who could perhaps afford to leave the unwelcome job until Thursday, were advised to get it done on Monday. Don’t worry that you might be the only visitor - the many callers in those first few days would include the funeral director, the vicar, relatives, neighbours, maybe the police . . . all of them, like yourself, with a role to play. Don’t be too upset if someone is weeping - there would inevitably be tears at so sad a time, and a reporter was mistaken if he thought that his intrusion was to blame. Take extra care to get the facts right - it was inexcusable to compound the distress of relatives by making mistakes with basics like names and ages. Avoid any hint of oily sympathy - by general agreement, a brisk but kindly approach was needed. Never rely on what neighbours tell you - this was a warning for those who thought they could avoid direct confrontation with a grieving family by calling next-door instead. Not only did errors result, they learned, but relatives were offended and hurt. Be especially wary if suicide was involved - many a block-release trainee had sensed the added tension, sometimes linked to guilt and self-recrimination, in such circumstances.
Of the hundreds of reporters who told their personal stories, only three had been unlucky enough to find themselves arriving on the doorstep of a house before the news of sudden death had even reached the family, which can easily happen as newspapers respond rapidly to industrial accidents or car crashes. ‘I’ve come about your husband,’ said the unfortunate reporter in each case. ‘He’s at work, love,’ was the cheery response. ‘What is it? Can I help?’ What do you do in these circumstances? Do you march in, invite the wife to sit down and then break the awful news? Or do you say that you will call back later and quickly beat a retreat? Whichever it is, you have only a couple of seconds to decide - and the widow who doesn’t know she’s a widow is holding the door open for you.
Two girls and one young lad had had this most shattering encounter. Both girls turned tail, muttering something about returning later. But the young chap grasped the nettle and found himself telling the horrified wife that her husband had been killed in a fall at work. The rest of the group listened in awe as he told how, after bursting into tears, the woman had answered his questions. ‘It worked out OK, but I wouldn’t do it again,’ he said. The students were quick to spot one very good reason why he shouldn’t do it again - he could have been misinformed and the ‘dead’ husband could have arrived home for his tea a couple of hours later and sent his wife into further shock. More discussion. And general agreement that the delivery of grim tidings such as this should be left to the police, whose uniformed appearance on the doorstep tells half the story before a word is spoken.
Reporters in their late teens sometimes spoke of the particular discomfort they experienced if they had to visit parents who had lost a son or daughter of about the same age. They felt, instinctively and with great unease, that the mourning parents who sat holding hands before them did not wish to be questioned about their nineteen-year-old son by someone else’s nineteen-year-old son. So what was the answer? ‘Ask the news editor if someone else could make that call,’ they suggested. But they didn’t sound too hopeful.
I found myself on thin ice whenever someone wanted to know if trickery or cajolery could justifiably be used to enter the homes of those whose first reaction was to say ‘No, I’m sorry, goodbye.’ The very mention of trickery in this context sounds shameful, and I would certainly never claim to be an old friend or someone who needs to read the gas-meter. Nor would I stick my foot in the door. The National Union of Journalists’ code of conduct says ‘Subject to the justification by over-riding considerations of public interest, a journalist shall do nothing which entails intrusion into private grief and distress.’ It’s an edict that is probably flouted dozens of times a day. But many years of experience have persuaded me that a harmless ruse is permissible on the grounds that, almost without exception, families are later comforted by a newspaper cutting showing that the passing of a loved one was publicly recorded rather than ignored (provided of course that the paper got it right).
My stance on this is perhaps rooted in a fleeting incident that came my way when I was a cub reporter with the Warrington Guardian group in Lancashire. A teenage son, with the best of intentions no doubt, was angrily shouting ‘Bugger off’ when his mother, joining him at the door, said sadly: ‘Let him come in. It’s all right.’ But the lad won, and the door slammed in my face. There was nothing in that week’s paper about the husband and father who had suffered an untimely end, no account of what he had achieved. Most widows receive comforting letters of condolence from those who have read about their loss. No letters for the sad wife at that door. No newspaper cutting for that young man to read in years to come as he sifts through the family’s memories.
So what is a ‘ruse’? On the basis that most people, suddenly summoned by a knock at the door at times like this, might find it hard to make the right decision in a split second, it seemed to me a good idea to use a ploy that would give them - and me - more time. The magic word, I told the trainees, was ‘check’. Was Mr Smith 59 or 69? Was it Alfred or Albert? ‘I just need to check a few little details.’ The tacit message was that the report was going to appear in any case so it was better to get it right. ‘Yes, well then, yes - just come inside. Would you like a cup of tea . . ?’ Minutes later the widow was talking fondly and in detail about her departed husband, producing photographs, recalling memories, even smiling. The community, it seemed, was interested in Alf. She was glad she hadn’t sent this young man packing.
A few students rejected all this as pure tosh, condescending twaddle. But most seemed to welcome it as at least the glimmer of a plausible and respectable reason for doing ‘house of death’ calls at all. And there was general support for my claim that community interest in bereavement was preferable to total indifference. There is not usually much ‘feed-back’ after formal lecture-sessions. Students are generally not in the habit of lingering to say how much they have appreciated what has gone before, but the ‘intrusion’ sessions were an exception. Many a student found an opportunity later, perhaps in a one-to-one tutorial, to say how grateful they were that this unpleasant aspect of the job had been examined in detail, and debates begun in the classroom were often pursued vigorously over coffee in the refectory.
An unfortunate telephone encounter with a clumsy journalist had already coloured the attitude of a girl of about nineteen on the pre-entry course. Her father, a prominent businessman, had died at his desk, and the local paper had rung for details within a few hours. Having answered the phone and told the reporter to hang on while she spoke to her mother, the girl happened to linger for a moment with the receiver still at her ear. To her horror, the man who moments before had been expressing soft-voiced concern at her tragic loss was now shouting across the room to a colleague - ‘Yea, I’ve got this young bird on the line. She’s gone for her mother. Yea, OK, I’m being as quick as I bloody can . . .’ Her classmates heard her story in silence. ‘Will I get like that?’ said the girl. ‘He was horrible, and he was so false.’
Similar fear was expressed by a graduate who, in his first week on a midlands evening paper, was disturbed by this casual response to other people’s tragedy. In those heady days of hot metal and chattering linotypes, the editor was showing the newcomer how pages were made up when a message came in about a road accident that had claimed the lives of two members of one family and left a third life hanging in the balance. The young reporter was dismayed by the news - but he was even more dismayed when the editor glanced at his watch and muttered some rapid calculation about getting the up-to-date version into the next edition if the injured victim happened to die in the next seventeen minutes or so. ‘He was completely heartless,’ the reporter told the group. And then there was the same question - ‘Will I become like that?’
More classroom debate. More soul-searching. And an acceptance of the fact that journalists - like surgeons and members of the emergency services - have to have dual personalities in matters such as this. The students came to realise, though, that detached professionalism did not necessarily equate with stony indifference, and we heard many a heart-warming story of sympathetic involvement with victims of tragedy. One gruff youngster who looked like a much-tackled rugby player shyly admitted that, after interviewing a sobbing woman who had lost nearly everything in a fire, he had called back two or three times, taken little presents for her child and initiated an appeal in the paper that had helped her on her way. Surrounded by young journalists who had already learned cynicism, the poor chap was then barracked with cries of ‘Hey, you fancied her didn’t you!’
These otherwise solemn sessions have inevitably been lightened on occasions by laughter. Many provincial newspapers still print ‘funeral forms’ that make the job easier for a reporter by listing the categories of information that need to be covered. A timid reporter can simply hand over the form and ask that it be returned later to the office. One of our trainees recalled his embarrassment when, on the doorstep, he learned that he had been misinformed and that Mr So-and-So, though very ill, had not passed away. ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ said our fellow - which was in itself a minor gaffe. But, trying to save himself a second visit, he made it worse. ‘Can I leave this form with you?’ he asked. The rest of the group were keen to know what happened - had he been sent packing instantly. ‘No,’ he said. ‘The lady was very nice about it - she took the form.’
Another painful admission concerned a man who had been decapitated on a railway line. The reporter asked for a photograph, and the widow produced a large full-length picture and asked if it would be suitable. ‘Oh yes,’ said the reporter. ‘We’ll cut it and just use the head and shoulders.’ He heard himself say it and wished he could drop through the floor, but his tactless remark seemed to go unnoticed.
One trainee - who is today a regional newspaper executive whom I shall not identify - produced incredulous hoots of merriment from his graduate classmates by asserting that he always took flowers with him on missions of this sort. ‘I do,’ he cried, to shouts of disbelief. ‘It always works like a charm.’ He was howled down by the rest of the group. ‘Do you get them on expenses?’ someone shouted. ‘Do you take them back from the people when you’ve done, and use them again?’ shouted someone else. ‘You can scoff if you like, but it works,’ said the trainee, falling into a sulk. I enjoyed this grotesque incident so much that the following day I hid a tape-recorder among the papers on my desk and baited the lad to repeat his claim for the benefit of those who had not been in the room on the earlier occasion. A repeat performance ensued, with renewed jeering - and many years later, during a high-powered training conference at which he was playing an important role, I played it back to the assembled company. He reacted with a rather rude word but at least he grinned. I still have the tape. And so does he - I presented him with a copy to the cheers of his conference colleagues.
We were fortunate at Sheffield to be able to take groups of students down to the city’s extraordinarily well-equipped Medico-legal Centre, which opened in 1977 to house a coroner’s court, the public mortuary and the forensic pathology department of Sheffield University. In this impressive building - still described on the internet as ‘a unique facility for the investigation of sudden death’ - the trainees learned about life’s more grisly aspects from a pathologist-and-coroner team who, despite their melancholy professions, always struck me as the Morecambe and Wise of the medical world. Top men in their respective fields, Home Office pathologist Dr Alan Usher and coroner Dr Herbert Pilling made a formidable double-act, and journalism students sat wide-eyed as the anecdotes flowed and pictures on a huge screen illustrated stomach-churning details of various calamities that had made the headlines.
It was all part of our grand plan to put old heads on young shoulders. Newspaper reporters never knew what was coming their way, we told them, and young entrants to needed to learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible, about life’s vicissitudes. We already took them to the occasional inquest, so that the real thing would hold no terrors, but post-mortem evidence made more sense to them when they had first-hand knowledge of those tiled rooms with their stainless-steel slabs, racks of shiny surgical instruments and lines of drawers labelled simply with names.
We drew the line at actual post-mortems. My own son, as a police cadet, had to watch two such macabre affairs (he still remembers the mortician who flapped a section of foul-smelling lung at him and said ‘It’s another bloody smoker!). But, as occasional chroniclers of life’s tragedies, our lot simply needed to understand - they did not need to be prepared, as police officers must be, for hands-on encounters with the mutilated victims of assault, murder or road-crash horror. Even so, many a trainee slid from his seat in a faint as he watched the larger-than-life pictures that necessarily accompanied Dr Usher’s lectures. I say ‘his seat’ because the girls, though sometimes sickened by the images, took it all in their stride. It was always one of the lads. We would hear a swish and a bump in the dimly-lit lecture theatre. ‘Has he gone? Give him a glass of water,’ Dr Usher would say.
The notorious ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ was at large at the time. Terrified girl students never left college alone after dark, arranging instead to travel in little groups. Dr Usher did the post-mortem on at least one of the victims and our trainees were grimly aware, on one of our visits, that her body lay within that very building. Sometime later, I recall, during a tour of the South Yorkshire police headquarters, we all stood aside in a corridor as a copper walked past with a sheaf of papers in his hand. ‘That’s the chap who arrested the Yorkshire Ripper,’ said our guide, in matter-of-fact tone. Given the chance, I’m sure all the girls would have hugged him.
These lectures and visits were not simply about tragedy. The trainees learned a lot about court procedures, about the reliability or otherwise of witnesses, about life itself. The journalism staff all had years of experience but we too found there was much food for thought here. Dr Pilling, the kindly, softly-spoken coroner for whom everyone had the highest regard, once shared with us his concern about the way in which detailed newspaper reports of suicide seemed to be a trigger for others who had been contemplating the act - after one suicide inquest there would often be a run of two or three more. It was, he said, as if some desperate but timid soul who read the journalist’s account of an overdose, a hanging or a slashing of the wrists had thought ‘If he can do it, then so can I.’
For me, this was a chilling thought. Covering hundreds of inquests over the years I had sometimes noticed a run of suicides, but the idea of cause and effect had never crossed my mind. The good doctor was not suggesting that suicide should not be reported. He merely wanted to make a few of tomorrow’s journalists think deeply about the role they would be playing in such matters. And he succeeded.
The visits to the medico-legal centre, incidentally, were made in the evening - students and lecturers were there in what would have been their free time - and the trainees were always impressed by the cool nerve of the young chap who was left on night duty, alone with his flask, his sandwiches and the silent occupants of those cold steel drawers. As we left, there was a bee-line for the nearest pub. Conversation was subdued. Hillsborough soccer stadium was just down the road. But there wasn’t much talk of football.