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I don’t want to do this. I’ve been willing myself to get out of the car for half an hour now, but the thought of what might happen next makes me feel sick. They’re home, the car is in the driveway.
Deep breaths. I grab my notepad and start making my way up the long driveway, past the neat garden to the front door…
I hate death knocks. I reckon most journalists do. It has to be the very worst part of the job. There is nothing enjoyable about knocking on someone’s front door looking for a story, knowing a family is being tortured by grief on the other side. It is bloody awful. Even if you do get the story, you always feel lousy afterwards. When emotions are so raw – even if they are strangers – it’s hard not to take a piece of their pain away with you.
I’ve probably done a few dozen death knocks during my TV career and there will probably be many more. This summer just gone has been particularly busy: beach drownings, shark attacks, holiday road smashes, domestic disputes turned deadly.
That’s a lot of doors to knock on. It doesn’t get easier; every family, every tragedy is different. And so are the responses to an interview request.
I’ve been physically threatened. Screamed at. Spat on. I’ve had doors slammed in my face, been pelted with beer bottles and rotten food. Our crew car’s been damaged. But you just have to wear it. Grief does strange things to people. If I’d had a loved one torn away from me, I’m not sure how I would react to a reporter knocking on my door.
Vultures! Heartless hacks! I can see you mouthing the words now. We journalists should be ashamed of ourselves! Well I’m not. It’s my job. And a big part of it is helping people tell their story. It frustrates me when people accuse journos of preying on grieving families for “ratings”. If anything, raw heartbreak can be a turn off for viewers. It’s too confronting, too uncomfortable to watch. I’m embarrassed to admit reporters sometimes overstep the line: harassing families, breaking into homes, stealing photographs of dead loved ones. That’s disgusting behaviour. Most of us just knock, politely ask the question and if the answer is no, leave.
My close friend and colleague, Dimity Clancey is Nine’s police reporter. She’s hugely talented and driven and is knocking on grieving strangers’ doors most mornings. She knows what it’s like to be on the other side of that door. “I was 14 when my sister and her husband were killed by a drunk driver on the way home from Carols in the Domain. A Daily Telegraph reporter came to our door a couple of hours after the police had told us my sister was dead.”
In a way, Dimity says, that moment steered her towards a career in journalism. “Dad was a bit shocked the media knew where we lived, but the reporter was very respectful. Obviously she was there to do a job, but she was compassionate. And when I have to make those awful house calls, I remember that. And people really do open up.”
Surprisingly many families actually do want to share their story; some say the process is even cathartic. Over cups of tea, I’ve listened to a father’s plea for drivers to slow down, after his son was killed in a hooning accident. On assignment in Samoa in 2010, I spent time with a young village girl, who lost eight members of her family in the tsunami. She’d put her own grief aside to volunteer at the understaffed hospital. She was 14. She wanted family to be proud of her, she told me.
Stories like these keep journalists knocking on strangers’ doors.
I can hear footsteps coming down the hallway as I wait at the big brick home’s front door. Inside, a family is grieving the death of a daughter, a sister, who was mauled by bull sharks while on a school excursion the day before. Not just a horrific story, it’s now this family’s excruciating reality. A middle- aged man answers the door, his eyes red and puffy. ‘I am so sorry to do this to you at such an awful time..’ I begin, but he cuts me off mid-sentence with a sad shake of his head. ‘No interviews’. He’s polite, but very firm.
I am not the first journo to knock on his door this morning.
A teenage girl appears in the doorway, she’s crying. ‘Dad I want to say something,’ I hold my breath, prepared to be screamed at. Who can blame her? ‘Can you please put in your story that she was the world’s best big sister?’ She’s sobbing now, I’m close to losing it too. Here comes that sick feeling… ‘Come on sweetheart,’ the man says to his daughter gently closing the front door. I got my quote, but as I walk back to the car I still feel lousy.
What do you think of the way the media handles grief?
Sarah Harris has been a journalist for more than a decade. She currently works as a reporter for the Nine Network and can be found on National Nine News. You can follow her on Twitter here.