Death and the Newsmen: The weight of reporting pandemic loss

Glasgow's empty streets

Glasgow streets have been empty or quiet during its lockdown (Photo: Tristan Stewart-Robertson)

In the film Citizen Kane, summarising the mystery of “Rosebud”, Thompson says:

“Mr Kane was a man who got everything he wanted, and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost. Anyway, I don’t think it would have explained everything. I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle… a missing piece.”

I spent a few hours recently going through more than 120 pages of intimations in daily regional and local papers, as well as weekly papers. Known as “hatches, matches and dispatches”, they are far fewer in number than they once were now that social media affords the opportunity to alert everyone to a loved one’s passing.

Some of the dispatches are on page 2, commanding a front corner of a paper. Some are hidden after international news and before endless comment pages. Others are buried in the back, after classified ads and before the currently near-empty sport.

Most of the words used to notify of death don’t say coronavirus or Covid-19, but we know from the increased numbers and from some press reports that these undoubtedly are part of the pandemic.

“Due to current circumstances …”

“When circumstances change there will be an opportunity to celebrate David’s life.”

“We cannot be together at this time but will remember with joy many happy memories.”

“Suddenly but peacefully …”

“It is with regret that due to the current health restrictions, the cremation will be private. We ask that you remember Margaret in your own way. R.I.P.”

“Midwife, skier, walker, camper, poet and dog lover, a life well lived.”

“A celebration of his life at some point in the future.”

“A remembrance service will follow when times allow.”

“Eileen finally lost her battle with life.”

“Peaceful in the fondest care …”

“Peaceful in the loving care …”

“You deserved a better farewell.”

Some of the intimations refer to the “government restrictions” or “guidelines” forcing funerals to be private. Some families have invited friends and the community to stand, almost as guards of honour, spaced six feet apart, along funeral routes as the safe and acceptable alternative to gathering huddled together in churches or clinking glasses together in memorial toasts.

Reporters have assisted in letting communities know about those arrangements.

We are often accused of running towards accidents or tragedy. It is a necessary part of journalism, and more so now.

On my first trip back to my Canadian home after moving to study and work as a reporter in the UK, I explained the term of the “death knock” to the shocked faces of my siblings. It is an accurate term for a horrible task, but one that is part of our jobs. It’s easy to say we shouldn’t do it at all. It’s harder to explain why, and perhaps I didn’t explain my profession well enough back then or frequently since — and that’s why it’s so hard for some to accept anything journalists do.

To knock on someone’s door after a death is the worst part of any reporter’s job. During a pandemic, we can’t do it. So we have to make the approaches online and over the phone.

We have all put our foot wrong at some point in these requests but overwhelmingly do it with the care and compassion we would want if someone came to our own door.

Death does sell papers, it’s true — though nowhere near what we once did. But to suggest we morbidly want death to knock presumes reporters don’t have families, don’t love, and don’t miss our own departed friends and family.

Many others have celebrated the art of the obituary writer, a formal position that has largely been lost from anyone below large daily newspapers. But many of my profession take very seriously the act of writing a tribute piece, of marking a life.

When I directed a Holocaust play while in university, I told the cast and crew to imagine swimming down into a pool. There’s a penny at the bottom but you have to swim into the darkest depths to be able to grasp it and then return it to the light above. In reporting on and writing about death, we are not wallowing at the bottom of the pool — we’re reaching for the value of light at the top.

A care home boss, in refusing to confirm how badly it had been affected by the virus in the past two months, told me recently:

“The death of anyone in any situation for whatever reason is deeply distressing for everyone.”

Of course it is. I replied that I did not enquire to cause further upset, but merely as a matter of public interest on where lives have been lost and how carers have been coping with that. The boss then emailed:

“I understand that you have a job to do and you see it in the public interest, however I see the reporting of the number of deaths, even if one, as cruelly distressing for the relatives of residents who are unable to visit. It is distressing enough to see daily deaths counts in the media.”

I struggled for a while with what to do with such a statement. Should all deaths be ignored? Should the press pause because the pandemic is too distressing?

The public will read or watch war reports from abroad for months and years — the difference is an audience can and does comfortably ignore the victims because of race, nationality or distance. A pandemic brings an almost war reporting style directly to your street. The terminology is one of the “front line”. And we rely on journalism because the majority must stay at home and can’t see or appreciate what that front line looks like.

Reporting every aspect of that, even with so many restrictions against us, is such an essential task that a great many of us feel it in the bones. We feel the professional need to get out and report, with the personal need to stay home to protect our own health — I’m a diabetic, for example — or to protect our families.

Do I fear death? Of course, riddled with the fear of not accomplishing enough in whatever I have left. But I have also written about death so much in recent months, including the weekly localised statistics, half of them in Scotland coming from care homes.

Yet not all have been Covid-19 fatalities.

Interviewing the father of and then writing about the 15-year-old boy who died of cancer1 was perhaps the most heartbreaking day of my career. But that’s my job.

I interviewed a woman about the passing of her 96-year-old aunt in a care home2 but down to age. I had met her when she was 95 and a victim of theft and wanted to follow-up to paint a picture of a long life well lived before she was ever a momentary statistic of crime. That’s my job.

And I interviewed a care home manager about how she has coped with loss3

 — 11 from suspected Covid-19 but denied access to tests by what some might call those “government restrictions” in newspaper intimations. That is my job.

The home was kind enough to pass a request to those 11 families for interviews should they wish us to celebrate the lives lived. I said there what I repeat again: newspapers are memory.

Newspapers are a jigsaw puzzle of memory, each piece the imperfectly shaped life that fits together to form a community. Look closer, and each piece is its own jigsaw made up of the events of a single life. The reporter’s job is to choose the words to summarise those pieces, its colours, its flaws. No single word can explain a person’s life, but journalism tries to get as close as possible.

In our pandemic world, the puzzles seem endless in number, and the challenges of fitting the pieces together are great.

But unless we focus on those pieces, unless we report them to the world, how will we ever see and appreciate the portrait that was, as well as the bright and living images around us now.


This blog was originally published as part of The Pandemic Journal4 of journalism experiences with the Covid-19 pandemic around the globe.

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