Reaping good death stories need not be grim

It is something most of us who have worked in newspapers will never forget – the nervous trepidation of approaching the door for that first ever death-knock.

Nothing can completely prepare you for your first one. It can come out of the blue, often puncturing an unremarkable day.

It will always be a case of walking into the unknown but there are a few things to remember that may help.

Fear is invariably worse than reality and this is true of death-knocks.

From experience, the majority go smoothly and families are happy to talk.

It is important to them that others are interested in the life of their loved one.

It may be a bad moment when you first make contact and you have to be prepared to go back.

How to start? It’s a cliché, but: ‘We are putting together a tribute …’has always worked for me as an opening gambit.

Don’t prevaricate. Contact the immediate family as soon as possible to ensure accurate information. I once worked with a nervous young journalist, whose tactic was to call on neighbours, speak to those at the local pub – anything to delay making the important call or knock on the door.

If you initially speak to a family member on the phone, arrange to go and see them in person. You will always get a better story face to face.

Pause, before you pick up the phone or knock on the door. Go over in your mind the questions you want to ask and the information you are hoping to obtain. It is better to avoid bothering people more than necessary and you may only get one chance.

Ask about pictures while you are there. Questions about the dead person’s interests, achievements and any societies they were involved in can uncover gems which will help make the story.

Get your questions in but don’t rush the family, allow them space to talk.

Be sympathetic and understanding but don’t be over familiar or act as if you are emotionally involved, especially if you did not know the deceased.

Accuracy is fundamental but never more important than in these sensitive situations. Always check the spelling of names. It is not unknown for the police, or other newspaper’s websites, to get it wrong.

The family may want to see a copy of the article before it goes to press. Generally this is something to be avoided but if there is a mistake, or a way in which something is worded that upsets the family, it is better addressed before the story goes to print.

The short answer is to run it by your superior first to get a decision. Don’t make promises you may not be able to keep.

A note to editors and news editors: Be understanding. It can be an incredibly difficult and disorientating situation for a young reporter to be working on weddings and nibs one minute and facing the prospect of talking to a bereaved family the next.

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