Don’t blame the messenger: Illuminating the Death Knock

The debate about one of journalism’s most controversial practices — the death knock — is moving from the newsroom to the public.

By Barrett Limoges

Debating the death knock, and how it affects loved ones left behind. 

By Barrett Limoges

Linda and Dave Reader with a painting of their son Jonathan, painted by a friend four days after the murder.
(Barrett Limoges)

Linda and Dave Reader only vaguely remember their first encounter with the death knock. What they remember far more vividly is the horrid day that led to it.

On August 25, 2005, the early morning silence was shattered as Linda’s scream went ripping through a Prince Edward Island hotel room. She had just heard the news.

[pullquote]

The media contacted us immediately.

– Dave Reader, father of Jonathan Reader [/pullquote]

“I think I screamed,” she says. “I don’t remember really, I just remember what people have told me.”

Her husband Dave nods his head grimly. “You did,” he says quietly. “You screamed.”

Around 4:10 a.m. the Readers’ 19-year-old son Jon was found murdered just two blocks from their home on the outskirts of Halifax. He had been celebrating in town with friends, that night after returning from a trip out west.

Fleeing from the hotel where the couple had brought their younger son and his friend for a soccer tournament, the Readers began the unbearable five-hour drive back to Halifax. Nobody knew exactly what had happened, much less why. All they knew was they had to get home.

“Shock. Devastation. Disbelief. The whole world came apart,” says Dave. “Nothing ever made sense. It still doesn’t.” 

Then came the death knocks.

“The media contacted us immediately,” says Dave. “Less than 12 hours. There was already a message on our machine when we got home.”

 That first message quickly turned into a torrent of interview requests. Everybody wanted answers—even though the Readers didn’t have any themselves. Dave’s brother John stepped into the role of managing the media.

“Pretty much everybody called or came to the house at some point,” John recalls. “We basically just turned them all away.”

While journalists were generally professional and left when asked to, John recalls a few incidents that rubbed him the wrong way.

The same day they returned from P.E.I., the family walked to the murder scene. Journalists were still drifting about the periphery. While most of the media respectfully left them in peace, one young woman acting like a simple passerby came up to express condolences. John can’t remember what organization she was with, but does remember abruptly telling her to leave when she began asking journalistic questions.

One news team came to the door a few days later with cameras rolling.

Despite the wave of media attention, the faces at the door and messages on the answering machine drifted past the Readers with a ghost-like transparency and emptiness. They felt no anger towards the journalists—they still don’t. They were in a very different place.

“It didn’t seem important to me at the time,” Dave says. “It’s very raw emotion and I think it’s common to say—can’t you all stop for a minute? Don’t you realize what’s happened? Doesn’t this mean anything to you?”

A Long Tradition

The death knock is a custom as old as journalism itself—imbedded within an industry that can be known to resist change. Journalists are generally sent out to knock on the doors of victims’ families by their editors and producers, who often were sent out by their editors and producers before them.

The most junior reporter often gets the assignment.

Despite the ubiquity of the practice, the death knock has remained largely unknown to the public—though that may be changing.

 In the summer of 2011 the British government launched the Levenson Inquiry in response to mounting evidence of journalistic misconduct by the tabloid News of the World. The result was the mother of all media scandals.

Media outlets had systematically hacked victims’ phones, bribed police and savagely disregarded grieving families’ privacy in a competition-driven scramble for stories. Fifty eight per cent of Britons polled said that the revelations of the scandal reduced their confidence in the press. 

The death knock was squarely in the crosshairs of the investigation. The British Parliament is now considering protecting grieving families through restrictions on early contact by the media. The attention has also prompted some of the first, long overdue studies on the practice.

In the wake of the inquiry, British university researchers spoke with 24 bereaved families and dozens of journalists in the industry about their experiences. Their findings surprised many.

More families felt they’d been left out of reports on their loved one’s death than felt intruded upon. They saw a death knock as preferable to journalists gathering vital information from less direct sources like social media. While the sample was small, the issue is clearly more complex than it appears at first glance.

The Professional 

“In a year, I might go to the house of [victims’ families] half a dozen to a dozen times,” Dan Arsenault says, steadily. “Sometimes more. Last year there were a lot.”

[pullquote]

The people who are close to that person have a right to get their opinion across. They also have the right to say no.

– Dan Arsenault, Chronicle-Herald crime reporter [/pullquote]

 Despite his salt-and-pepper hair and stubble, the Chronicle-Herald’s head crime reporter has a boyish intensity about him. Everything his piercing brown eyes fixate on seems to take on a new significance—you can’t quite shake the feeling he is aware of something you are not.

Arsenault believes that, outside of the police force, he has probably spoken to more people in HRM about death and crime than anyone else in the city. He is also one of many reporters in the city who investigated the murder of Jonathan Reader. 

He trades emails back and forth with some families he has talked to, and often sees them later in court—even though he doesn’t cover court.

“I think [families] like to see me there and I like to see the way the situation plays out,” he says.

Arsenault has been doing death knocks for close to a decade, seeing himself as, above all, a professional. He scoffs at the idea of sending out the most junior reporter to knock. “We don’t do that.”

He often advises families he interviews to have a close friend with them to alleviate stress during an interview. 

Verona Singer from the Police Victims’ Service Department says that the days immediately following a tragedy are crucial, and support is the most important thing families can have.

“Shock is often the first reaction,” she says. “Shock and denial. How the family is dealt with in the immediate aftermath of trauma makes a big difference in their recovery.”

While the department has no official position on death knocks, one of their duties is preparing families to deal with the media. However, Singer does strongly affirm that the media has a role in allowing families to portray their loved ones as they remember them.

Despite the practice’s negative connotations, Arsenault would not change the way death knocks are done. He stresses that the Internet has made collecting information on victims less intrusive. He also points out that death knocks are only a small part of the Herald’s reporting on violent death.

“When we can keep an unsolved murder in the newspaper, oftentimes the family is very appreciative of what I’ve done,” he says. “The attitude is, we are going to be writing about someone who has had their life taken away. Definitely, the people who are close to that person have a right to get their opinion across. They also have the right to say no.”

The Repentant Sinner

Kevin Cox remembers when he said no—to doing another death knock.

During his three decades as a reporter—16 years of which he was the lone correspondent for the Globe and Mail in Atlantic Canada—Cox knocked on countless doors to ask about a recent death. He was already apprehensive about doing it, but one evening in 2004, he decided the Globe was pushing him somewhere he just couldn’t go.

Kevin Cox recalls his first experience with the death knock working for the Hamilton Spectator when he was just 20 years old: [audio:http://kjr.kingsjournalism.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Kevin-Cox-INVU1.mp3]

The HMCS Chicoutimi had gone up in flames off the coast of Scotland. The mechanical fire took the life of crew member Lieutenant Chris Saunders. After getting the family to identify a picture of the lieutenant, Cox promised the shattered family he would never bother them again. Then the call came in from headquarters.                 

“I thought (the picture) was the best we could do, and then we got ordered to go back again,” he says wistfully. “I couldn’t make myself go to the door…I sat under a tree for a little while, and thought ‘I can’t do this’…I said a few expletives under my breath, got back in the car and said, ‘fire me if you want to, but I’m not gonna do it.’”              

The family released a public statement later that day, sparing Cox and other journalists from any further death knocks. Still, something about the situation hit Cox as profoundly wrong and he realized he couldn’t do another one.

Returning to the office, he found a buyout offer waiting in the fax machine for all employees over 50. He was 51.             

“I may not believe in divine intervention, but I sure did on that day,” he says, with a hearty laugh. “I sort of looked at it and said, yes. That’s it.”           

Later that year, Cox enrolled in theological school to become a minister with the United Church of Canada, the church in which he had grown up and occasionally taught Sunday school. It was there that he first learned about the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

“Very few reporters that I ran into even knew what the five stages of grief were, and I certainly didn’t until I studied them,” says Cox, furrowing his wiry grey eyebrows. “I did pickups virtually every year (of my) career, and I never understood what those people were going through. I never even asked.” 

Since exiting the media world, Cox has become an outspoken critic of the death knock. He says the role of journalism is to help the world make more sense to people, and the media should wait 24 to 48 hours before contacting families.     

“I think what we can forget sometimes as reporters is that it’s not our happiness that matters,” says Cox. “We’re gonna go on to another story tomorrow. They’re not. Those three paragraphs we put out there are going to be part of who they are.

“There’s got to be a better way to make those three paragraphs make sense.” 

A Rainy Night

The rain has died down, the drops now barely audible over the light crackle of the radio in the far corner of Linda and Dave Reader’s dimly lit kitchen. Spread out across the red checkered squares of table cloth is an array of cookies, a baked specialty called blueberry buckle from Dave’s native Newfoundland and, of course, tea.                 

“Every young person who comes to visit is her son,” Dave jokes warmly of his wife’s hospitality. “She always was like that. Even before Jon was murdered.”  

It’s been seven years since the August night that changed the Readers’ lives. Come the first anniversary of the murder, the police investigation had hit a wall. With no resolution in sight, the Readers decided that the time had come to open their door to the press.

Despite the shaky first impression, the Readers felt an immediate and sincere friendship with the journalists they spoke with. 

“It’s about relationships,” says Linda. “I think the media that came here were very…gentle. Very caring. You can’t hide that.”

One reporter from CTV still sends the family periodic emails, checking in to see how they are doing.

There was a significant uptick in tips to police—a trend that would repeat itself every time they met at the anniversary of Jon’s death. While the case is officially unsolved due to lack of witnesses, the Readers now know with some certainty who killed their son.

This is the first year that Dave and Linda have decided not to speak with the press. There are many reasons—a busy schedule, a low likelihood of a resulting conviction—but perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Readers sense a change in their lives.

“This is the first time in seven years, really, that we have been truly happy,” says Dave. “The experience doesn’t end. I’m sure we appear…normal.” He chuckles lightly. “Whatever that means. But we’re forever changed.

 “And we still miss him.”