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Fri Apr 27 7:38 am  #1


Why media knock on doors and call families after tragedies

I am probably one of the few on this board who as a journalist knocked on doors or telephoned next of kin of accident, fire and murder victims to build a profile of the victims for my assigned story. The calls included asking for a photo of the victim (pre Facebook days). This is why I want to weigh in on an earlier thread about police asking media to stop harrassing families for an interview.

I write extensively in my book 99 Things You Wish You Knew About Making It BIG In Media about interviewing family members, when and how to conduct those interviews, what to ask family members during the interview and how to get photos of the victims.

It is the most difficult assignment for newsaper reporters and equally difficult for radio and TV reporters.

In a recent blog http://kowchmedia.com/on-the-kowch-twinkles-love-story/ I write about the experience:

"From where I sit On the Kowch, I have too many memories of dead people I never knew. As a Montreal newspaper reporter in the late ’60s, ’70s and part of the ’80s, I wrote human interest stories about victims of crime, accidents, fires and disasters. For twenty years I knocked on doors of family and friends to talk to them about the loss of a child, sibling, spouse or parent.

"Each interview was a challenge because you never knew what to expect when someone responded to that knocking on the door. I remember my heart racing each time I approached the door and wondering what  would I do or say if it was me on the other side of that door. Sometimes, they would politely ask to be left alone. But more times than not, I was invited to sit in the living room or at the kitchen table to talk with family members and friends gathered at the house about the person who died.Once the story was published, I rarely had contact with the families again. They were left to mourn and pick up the pieces of their shattered lives in private. I never found out how those tragedies impacted their lives, unless it was a multiple loss of life event and we did follow up stories on the anniversary of the death(s)."

I understand when something like the van attrack on Yonge Street happens, it gets crazy with so many news media looking for the human interest story. Or a quote from the family members of the person arrested.

Sometimes, it's not media's finest hour.

But despite that, I defend going to the home or place of work (restaurant where father of the accused works) to get a comment. It's the role of the media to seek answers. It's PART of the story. Yes, let me repeat this, it's part of the story. It's terrible to have to try to get a comment but it's the only way to provide fair and impartial coverage of such a terrible event. To only let the narrative of this terrible story come from the police is wrong. It becomes a one sided story. Like it or not people do want answers to know about the accused and the only way to get that is to talk to friends, relatives and yes, even the father.

At the end of the day, It is their choice to speak to the media or not. 

The same with the police officer who arrested the driver of the van. Just because the police department doesn't want the media to talk to the  "policeman who didn't shoot" doesn't mean the media should not have tried to talk to him. 

I hestitated to jump into the fray here, but all I've been reading is the usual rhetoric from the same people who add nothing to the conversation. I write this with the hopes other journalists who have had to seek out family members after a tragedy give their point of view based on their EXPERIENCE. I have no doubt there will be some, maybe even many, who disagree with me about the need or even the ethics of seeking comment from the victim's families or families of the accused.

I know it's 2018 and not the 60's, 70's or 80's when I knocked on doors for comments. But in journalism, even today that assignment is still a key part of covering tragedies.  

This Board is about how media works and to share comments about what people hear on the radio or see on TV. I think in view of what has happened in the past week in Toronto, this is an important topic here on this board that deserves informed opinion and ideas from everyone in the media to weigh in about the role of the media in trying to get the other side of the story from the family of victims and family of the accused.

I also call on media groups and associations to organize a panel discussion about this topic. I'm available to be a panelist or even moderator since I have no competition now that I'm retired. I also call on J-Schools like Humber, Seneca, Ryerson and others to teach students how to solicit information from the families (both the victims and the accused).

And one final thought: I listened to a lot of radio and watched a lot of TV the day of the event and I just want to say they all did an excellent job of covering the story with the resources they have. And to also congratulate the Toronto media for not jumping on the terrorist bandwagon. I thought everyone was pretty restrained from jumping to conclusions of who and why this attack on Younge Street happened. 


 

Last edited by kowchmedia (Fri Apr 27 7:53 am)

 

Fri Apr 27 8:57 am  #2


Re: Why media knock on doors and call families after tragedies

Great response, Steve.

I'll chime in with my experience.

In the mid 00's, I was assisting a morning radio show during one of Toronto's peak periods of gun violence. I can't recall if it was The Summer of the Gun or not.

A young man had been shot dead the day before in the Rexdale area. And by young, I mean mid-teens. This was big news the next morning, given the number of shootings at the time.

We had the man's name. The producer I was working with asked me to find his mother. Those were my only instructions. Somehow, I had to find the deceased boy's grieving mother at 6 a.m., the day after her offspring was taken from her, and ask her to talk about her emotions on air.

How the fuck was I going to find her without canvassing the neighbourhood, knocking on doors, or gleaning her phone number/home address from a Magic Eight Ball?!?

Luckily, the deceased had a unique name. I searched for the last name using 411.ca or yellowpages.ca, and found a few names in the Rexdale area. I dialed them one by one, at 6 a.m.

I eventually reached a woman who turned out to be the deceased's aunt. I expected her to aggressively tell me to take a flying leap. Amazingly, however, she instead opted to give me the contact information for the deceased's mother, as she thought it would be important to share the family's story with the listening audience.

One of the most gut-wrenching things I had to do during my time in radio, was call this mother. I rang her up, quickly explained how I obtained her digits, and asked if we could speak with her on the show. She agreed.

The producer called her back on the guest line, and she was connected for what turned out to be an emotional, powerful and tear-filled conversation with the host.

I felt dirty. Uncomfortable. It was a completely inappropriate process.

But we got the story. And hers was compelling and moving. She had a message to share with the world, about what happened to her son, how he ended up in that situation, and how she wanted others to avoid his fate.

I still hope that her story, somehow, helped to change even one life for the better.

Thanks for reading.

 

Fri Apr 27 3:32 pm  #3


Re: Why media knock on doors and call families after tragedies

Fjiri wrote:

Great response, Steve.

I'll chime in with my experience.

In the mid 00's, I was assisting a morning radio show during one of Toronto's peak periods of gun violence. I can't recall if it was The Summer of the Gun or not.

A young man had been shot dead the day before in the Rexdale area. And by young, I mean mid-teens. This was big news the next morning, given the number of shootings at the time.

We had the man's name. The producer I was working with asked me to find his mother. Those were my only instructions. Somehow, I had to find the deceased boy's grieving mother at 6 a.m., the day after her offspring was taken from her, and ask her to talk about her emotions on air.

How the fuck was I going to find her without canvassing the neighbourhood, knocking on doors, or gleaning her phone number/home address from a Magic Eight Ball?!?

Luckily, the deceased had a unique name. I searched for the last name using 411.ca or yellowpages.ca, and found a few names in the Rexdale area. I dialed them one by one, at 6 a.m.

I eventually reached a woman who turned out to be the deceased's aunt. I expected her to aggressively tell me to take a flying leap. Amazingly, however, she instead opted to give me the contact information for the deceased's mother, as she thought it would be important to share the family's story with the listening audience.

One of the most gut-wrenching things I had to do during my time in radio, was call this mother. I rang her up, quickly explained how I obtained her digits, and asked if we could speak with her on the show. She agreed.

The producer called her back on the guest line, and she was connected for what turned out to be an emotional, powerful and tear-filled conversation with the host.

I felt dirty. Uncomfortable. It was a completely inappropriate process.

But we got the story. And hers was compelling and moving. She had a message to share with the world, about what happened to her son, how he ended up in that situation, and how she wanted others to avoid his fate.

I still hope that her story, somehow, helped to change even one life for the better.

Thanks for reading.




 

 

Fri Apr 27 4:02 pm  #4


Re: Why media knock on doors and call families after tragedies

I'll comment, although I don't have a book or blog to shill...

What is knocking or calling a victim's or accused's family/next-of-kin going to achieve? This amounts to the same type of questions/answers as those moronic post-game interviews: same-old, same-old. When a family is grieving, attempting to bother them is completely unwarranted.

...My apologies, again, as I don't have a verbose manifesto of paragraphs to contribute.

TL:DR -- don't bother next-of-kin.

 

Fri Apr 27 7:43 pm  #5


Re: Why media knock on doors and call families after tragedies

@cGrant, are you referring to reporters' trying to get the story in the public interest, as being the equivalent to someone who needs a thing to talk about, without really having knowledge, information, or a "verbose manifesto" with which to discuss a topic logically and without drawing upon simplistic rhetoric?

If that 's the case, you sure nailed it.

 

Fri Apr 27 9:59 pm  #6


Re: Why media knock on doors and call families after tragedies

Thanks for waiting until the second paragraph to mention your product, TC.

Last edited by BoredOp (Fri Apr 27 10:01 pm)

 

Fri Apr 27 11:32 pm  #7


Re: Why media knock on doors and call families after tragedies

Getting the story in the public interest? How? By interviewing a grieving next-of-kin? Really? What will the public learn from a distraught mother? That she loved her son and misses him? How does that serve the public? What did we learn? Vultures.

 

Sat Apr 28 11:14 am  #8


Re: Why media knock on doors and call families after tragedies

A reporter I know asks, "What do you want the world to know about your husband/son, etc.?"  That takes some attention away from the person who committed the crime and allows the family to let people know that their loved one was more than a name, gender and age.  It can be done tactfully if the reporter has a brain and a heart.

 

Sat Apr 28 7:45 pm  #9


Re: Why media knock on doors and call families after tragedies

Prod Guy wrote:

A reporter I know asks, "What do you want the world to know about your husband/son, etc.?"  That takes some attention away from the person who committed the crime and allows the family to let people know that their loved one was more than a name, gender and age.  It can be done tactfully if the reporter has a brain and a heart.

 
When I hear these kinds of reports, it really hits home. It's a high risk/high reward question, that can humanize a fact filled story.

 

Sat Apr 28 10:00 pm  #10


Re: Why media knock on doors and call families after tragedies

cGrant wrote:

Getting the story in the public interest? How? By interviewing a grieving next-of-kin? Really? What will the public learn from a distraught mother? That she loved her son and misses him? How does that serve the public? What did we learn? Vultures.

It's called adding depth and character to a story. Humans are vultures, especially when it comes to their need to obtain information. They hunt for it, and descend upon it with great speed. While the idea may cause you to piss your pants with unnecessary rage, people enjoy a good human interest story. Yes, they digest stories from newspaper, TV, radio, digital, etc. to stay informed, but also to stay entertained, to some degree.

cGrant, I'm sure you've never EVER read a story that has included comment from a grieving relative, friend or coworker. Ever. Right? You are far above that sort of pleb journalism.

 

Sat Apr 28 10:55 pm  #11


Re: Why media knock on doors and call families after tragedies

Fjiri wrote:

cGrant, I'm sure you've never EVER read a story that has included comment from a grieving relative, friend or coworker. Ever. Right? You are far above that sort of pleb journalism.

I wonder how you can be so "sure" of what I have or have not read.  Please enlighten me as to your investigative prowess.

And, I make a distinction between if I have read such a comment vs whether I agree with its practise. Can you see the difference between the two?

I maintain, the public, IN MY OPINION, is not well-served to know that a grieving mother misses her now-dead son. That's a "duh" moment. Certainly, her darling offspring was the salt-of-the-earth, unique and brilliant in every way. Another "duh" moment. NOW, tell me about the mother, when bothered by a reporter seeking comment about their dead kid says, "oh, I hated that spawn of satan, he was pure evil and deserves to rot in that grave". Now, THAT's something of mild interest.
 

 

Sat Apr 28 11:16 pm  #12


Re: Why media knock on doors and call families after tragedies

betaylored wrote:

Prod Guy wrote:

A reporter I know asks, "What do you want the world to know about your husband/son, etc.?"  That takes some attention away from the person who committed the crime and allows the family to let people know that their loved one was more than a name, gender and age.  It can be done tactfully if the reporter has a brain and a heart.

 
When I hear these kinds of reports, it really hits home. It's a high risk/high reward question, that can humanize a fact filled story.

Bang on, both of you.

 

Sun Apr 29 11:08 am  #13


Re: Why media knock on doors and call families after tragedies

This was always the "part of the job" that I despised.  As the cameraman of the team, I would often wait in the car while the reporter would knock on the door and negotiate an interview or a photograph. 

People would describe us as vultures.  It may have been vulture like but we were far from vultures.  I never met or worked with anyone who enjoyed that part of the job.  Reporters would agonize about having to go up to the door and occasionally we would just leave and tell the desk there was no one home or that they wouldn't talk. 

Sometimes when I was sent on my own to obtain some viz of a victims home, the desk would ask me to knock on the door and try to obtain a photo.  I would point blankly refuse.

I'm not sure if this still happens but the Toronto Sun would have an annual year book contest.  Schools and students were encouraged to sent in their yearbook to be judged and awarded prizes for the best one.  The end result was a library of mugshots from throughout the GTA of future victims or perpetrators. 

Many times during our morning meetings, there would be copies of The Sun with a story from the night before with a shot of a victim from one of those books.

I thought that was brilliant!

 

Sat May 5 9:17 pm  #14


Re: Why media knock on doors and call families after tragedies

From the Toronto Star's Public Editor:

Why journalists interview grieving families 

 

Sat May 5 10:27 pm  #15


Re: Why media knock on doors and call families after tragedies

RadioActive wrote:

From the Toronto Star's Public Editor:

Why journalists interview grieving families 

My guess is the Star received more than a few critical messages regarding their  "personal stories".  She wraps the flag around herself quite well explaining how this reporting is good for humanity.  Bullshit.  My life didn't become better for reading one of those stories.  The empathetic articles did nothing to alieve a loved ones loss.  Personally all I feel is rage at the intrusion that benefits only the media outlet.  I would offer that many of these relatives were in shock when they were made to pour out their soul.  It's the journalistic version of Ambulance Chasing Lawyers.  Follow the money.

Last edited by ONEIL (Sat May 5 10:28 pm)