Doorstepping was always one of my least-favorite reporter’s duties. Even less than trying to decipher pages and pages of financial reports presented during a l-o-n-g local council meeting, where the numbers swam in front of my eyes like hieroglyphics.
It went like this: word reached the newsroom that someone had died in a tragic manner, and you were sent to the home to get the details. “And be sure to get a photograph. Don’t come back without a picture.”
I wasn’t a praying man in those days, but as I walked up the path to the front door I would silently hope that no one was home, or that they would refuse to come to the door. Maybe sometimes I knocked really quietly.
My discomfort wasn’t eased by a grizzled colleague telling me of one of his doorstepping experiences. He had been dispatched to the home of a man whose death—falling into the machinery at an industrial plant—had just been disclosed during the latest hourly calls to the emergency services. My friend straightened his tie and knocked on the door, for it to be opened by a brightly smiling woman.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hello,” he replied, a little surprised. Then he launched into the standard opening for this sort of situation: “I’m (insert name) from (insert publication). I’m very sorry to trouble you at a time like this, but it’s about Mr. (insert name)…” The pause was when you found out whether they’d talk to you or not.
“Oh,” the woman said cheerily. “That’s my husband. He’s not home from work yet, but he should be back at any moment. Would you like to come in and wait?”
Although I never enjoyed doorstepping I recognized its value, accepting that it was less vampiric than critics said, for the most part. Not that on some occasions (the Newtown shootings, the Boston bombings) the television footage of someone surrounded by a swarm of people waving cameras and microphones doesn’t look a little vulture-like.
But I realized that, despite its discomfort, doorstepping has its place. It can be something of a community service, helping inform others of a family’s loss. And it can offer a measure of comfort to the grieving; their loved one mattered enough for someone to ask. I found that although some families were abrupt, most were welcoming and even seemed to appreciate the opportunity to talk.
Still, it’s understandable that journalists are criticized for seeming to intrude on these occasions. At such times it’s helpful to have more than popularity as a motivation. And I find it in an account of biblical doorstepping.
David’s rebellious son Absalom has just been killed, despite the king’s instructions that his life be spared. Ahimaaz volunteers to run with the news to David, but Joab, the commander who ended Absalom’s life along with the uprising, tells him no.
“You are not to carry news today,” he said, according to 2 Samuel 18:20. “You may carry news another day, but today you shall carry no news, because the king’s son is dead.”
Was Joab imposing an embargo because of concern for his commander-in-chief’s feelings, or his own skin? Who knows, but it’s a reminder that sometimes people don’t want the news to get out…
“Why will you run, my son, seeing that you will have no reward for for the news?” Joab asked.
“Come what may,” Ahimaaz replied, “I will run.”
Now, to be fair to the rest of the story, things didn’t turn out too well. When it came to the crunch, Ahimaaz fudged things like my quick-thinking reporting buddy of back in the day, who told the woman at the door: “Oh, sorry about that. I’ll come back later then!”
But Ahimaaz’s initial cry stands as a worthy pledge for journalists. People may question your motives, but it’s possible to have a purity of purpose. People might not like what you have to say. They might criticize you for interfering or intruding. You might not win any plaudits or prizes. But sometimes things just need to be told.
There’s important news to be delivered, so “Come what may, I will run.”