Monday, 12 December 2011

Can't Stand Losing You

One of the reasons I like being a reporter is you do get to hear some interesting stuff. And 'interesting' is a very broad church.
I do get to hear gossip, and intrigue, and truly slanderous stuff, inside information, dirty deals, inappropriate material. And being such an inquisitive - alright, nosy - geezer, I do love it. Downside is you get to hear some very upsetting stuff, and despite what you think about the cold heartedness of reporters, most of the time it does get to us.
I mean, I got all choked up when a Navy sub came home earlier this year, because all of the families on the dock, the hugs, the atmosphere, the brass band playing, the wives and girlfriends breaking down, the sailors clutching their partners and cuddling their children.
One of my fellow reporters recently worried that she wasn't being tough enough because she blubbed at the return of HMS Ocean.
I told her I'd wobbled and it was okay because we are human.
No, honest, we are and I have a doctor's certificate to prove it.
I won't deny I've occasionally cried at funerals of people I don't even know, because the service is so moving, the music so haunting, the words spoken so honest and sad.
I've always cried at funerals for kids.
I hate covering a child's funeral. Really, really hate it. They're always the most heartbreaking things to cover as a reporter and personally speaking, the smaller the coffin, the more awful I feel being there.
One, because any child's death is a sad affair.
Two, because as a parent myself my heart goes out to the parent of the dead child and how much agony they must be in, and three I darkly imagine how I'd get through it if it was one of my kids in that little box with rows of people sitting numbly in front.
Now, there's been a lot of debate online about reporters covering deaths, particularly what is termed in the "industry" as 'death-knocks'.
The main point of the debate boils down to "why do evil, callous, parasite reporters knock on people's doors within hours of them losing a loved one, the evil, callous, parasitic b'stards?'
It's not necessarily an unfair question. But if you've done them, the answer is easy.
You're sent, because that's your job.
What isn't easy is actually doing them. Nor is understanding why people do talk to you.
In fact, understanding why the great majority of people you knock on the door of, do want you to come in and talk to you... well, it doesn't seem to make sense... until you do them.
Because when you've lost someone, you all sit around together, heartbroken, stunned, hollow, trying to come to terms with what to do next.
Then in walks someone who doesn't know this dead person and asks straight out, 'can you tell me about them, what were they like, what did they say that made you laugh, what did they do that infuriated you, what was their favourite music/film/book/meal, what did they want to be when they were little, what will you miss most about them?
'Who were they, that other people could possibly know what they've missed out on. Who was this person they will never know. Can you help me write something they helps explain why they were so wonderful to you, explains why their leaving this world means you feel so terrible right now.'
And so, they do tell you.
And you often wish you did know this person, because they sound just like someone you would like.
I don't like doing death knocks at all.
I do know reporters who are decent people who don't have as much of a problem with them.
I don't think I've ever met a reporter who 'enjoys' doing them.
But the one's I have done, the person who's telling me things is often smiling as they do so.
It's the first chance they've had since their loss to enthuse with another human about the person they love who has gone.
I've interviewed families - parents, siblings, friends - as a group and often they start to tell stories to each other, surprising each other with tales that other family members never knew about.
They often learn new things about the deceased, a tale about who was really responsible for a broken plate when siblings where young, or a dad lets slip about them on a weekend away that mum never knew, or some medal grandad was awarded that no-one but grandma knew about.
The stories are often warm, jovial, endearing, full of humour, admiration, love.
A couple of times, I leave the house and there's been more smiles than tears.
Good memories of a loved one, not sadness.
So, I go back to the office and try and put that person across on paper, the way their loved ones have done so to me, to let you - the readers - know what you missed, never got the chance to meet, to know, to love as much as their family did.
I consider it an onerous task. I've been given a great responsibility. It's not the sort of thing I should take lightly.
And I don't. Ever.
Neither do my colleagues, at least all the ones I've ever worked with.
That's a death knock.
When you've written it, it becomes a 'tribute' piece.
And before you ask, yes, I've done death knocks on people who've been complete gits most of their lives.
But even the most obnoxious git has someone who loves them and mourns their passing.
And I'll record that too.
Until you're there, in that situation, you can't know or understand the way it'll go.
Maybe you'll close the door quickly, maybe you won't even answer it. Maybe you'll open it wide and let the reporter in.
Regardless, reporters will still call, still record what's said, and write it.
That, as I said earlier, is our job.


To end, I'll give an example of what I mean.
I once did a death knock on a mum who's 19 year old son died when his car span off the road and hit a tree.
Lovely woman, really kind, in shock. Her friend was with her, giving support and I called on her for the tribute. We had cups of tea. She told me all about him. He sounded a typical Essex teenager really. A bit of a lad, one for the ladies, liked his motor more than anything.
I got back to the office late and started writing.
Then I got a call from his best friend, effing and blinding, shouting about how evil I was, how obscene it was that I'd bothered his mate's mum, how stinking vile I was, why the bloody hell I'd bothered her?
'Because as of right now, your mate is number 15, and that's all he'll ever be if I don't write this.'
*Eh? What are you going on about?* he shouted.
'Your mate was the 15th person to die on this county's roads this year. Just another number in a long list of people who've died. Next week there will be a number 16, then 17 and so on until we start all over again with number 1 next year. This way, he's John Smith, a teenager who was loved by his mum, who liked cars, liked girls, liked certain music and clothes and had some really good mates. He's not another statistic, he's a person and people will be able to remember him as a person, not a statistic'.
It all went quiet for a while, and then his best friend apologised profusely, stumbling over his words, trying to take it all back.
I made it very clear that it was completely alright, there was no problem at all, it was very understandable and he wasn't to worry, fer chrissakes he'd just lost his best mate, of course he's upset and angry and everything.
He shyly asked if he could add some comments of his own to the article I was writing.
I was more than happy to oblige.
The kid's mum phoned up later, wanting to change a word. She'd said he was a bit of a devil, or something which didn't really match him properly.
I already knew what she'd really meant when she said it, and I'd changed it to something like tyke or rascal.
She said that was what she'd really meant and thanked me.

What I did is nothing unusual. It is what most reporters (local - can't talk for the nationals) do everyday.
It may seem strange, but there it is. I hope that helps the debate.

No comments:

Post a Comment