The death knock. It has no friends. It draws shudders from journalists crotchety or fresh-faced alike.
This need to hear from the freshly stricken—is it a human desire to comprehend the incomprehensible, or a salacious hunger for vicarious rawness after violent and untimely deaths?
There is rarely a drawing of straws—if you’re the breaking news reporter when tragedy strikes, it’s in your lap.
Once, you would have reached for pen and notebook and headed for the door. Today? You open Facebook.
Don’t have a name? You might strike it lucky with an ‘RIP’ left on a news report by a well-meaning friend.
Search the name. Is this them? Photos? An open friends list? Click ‘message’. Draft condolences. Offer the chance to ‘pay tribute’.
It’s so soon. The loss cannot possibly have registered. It’s unimaginable.
This is no substitute, merely a delay. Pen, notebook and off you head to the dreaded knock, knock, knock.
In the early hours of July 21, Laa Chol, 19, drew her final breath.
A 17-year-old has been charged over her death, a 16-year-old charged with being an accessory to murder and assault.
By the time of the arrests, Chol’s stabbing death in a CBD apartment had been splashed as front page news.
Specifically, the Herald Sun’s Monday edition led with an ‘exclusive’ story: ‘Mum of teen murdered in CBD party wants…Justice for My Girl’.
I was surprised. Chol’s’s Anyuak community would traditionally mourn together, in private, until a burial took place.
I knew Chol’s family had been explicit in expressing their wishes for privacy.
I was also surprised by some of the language directly attributed to Chol’s mother Ojwanga Abalo, particularly that perennial tabloid chestnut ‘cowardly’.
Melbourne lawyer and activist Nyadol Nyuon, who was called to the house on Sunday after the Herald Sun journalist and photographer arrived, soon tweeted that the family was upset by the coverage and what they considered to have been an intrusion.
I sought further information about what had happened and was put in touch with a young niece of Abalo and another family member. They both reiterated that the family had never ceased requesting privacy and had not wished for media to attend their home.
They told me that the reporter and a photographer did nevertheless turn up and speak with family, but that it was not clear that their conversation was being treated as an interview.
Meanwhile, the Herald Sun had updated its online article, adding a new paragraph:
The Herald Sun strongly rejects allegations its reporter did not identify themselves to Ms Chol’s family yesterday or in anyway acted inappropriately. The Herald Sun’s reporter, after identifying themselves as a journalist, was invited to sit on the floor with the family who then clearly consented to an interview which was published today.
Nyuon later tweeted that the women maintained the Herald Sun was told of the family’s wishes not to comment, but that some of the quotes attributed to Chol’s mother may have come from a young woman at the house—the niece with whom I had spoken.
I pondered how such an apparent breakdown could have occurred. This notion of ‘clear consent’ appeared the crux of any confusion. I have no doubt the journalist identified herself, but in the circumstances the family appears not to have understood the ramifications of talking.
A family’s private suffering was now splashed across the city in a very public way.
I followed mutely from the sidelines, until The Australian’s chief reporter in Melbourne took Nyuon to task.
Chip Le Grand demanded on Twitter that she apologise, along with those ‘who disseminated your slurs’.
The Herald Sun had published its version of what transpired and now other News Corp journalists were weighing in—it seemed only fair to somewhat balance the ledger.
I had been thinking about the senseless loss of Chol’s life, but also its inevitable ripples.
In 2011 I visited the St Albans home of Ayen Chol, a four-year-old girl who had been mauled to death by a pitbull in front of her mother Jackline Ancaito.
Ancaito had just rescued another young girl from the dog, only to have her own daughter ripped away from her.
I can’t even begin to comprehend what she was going through. As a father of two young boys, one the same age as Ayen, I can imagine no personal horror approaching the loss of your child, let alone such a violent end.
I reached the gate to find two men talking. I identified myself as a journalist and explained the purpose of my visit.
They ushered me into the kitchen, where a dozen or so men were gathered, preparing and cooking food in large pots.
I again explained who I was and why I was there. One led me through a door off the kitchen into a lounge room, pointing me towards Ancaito.
She sat with her arms clutched around her, rocking. I’ve seen a lot in my role but the look in her eyes will never leave me. Around her, spread across blankets, about 20 other woman sat in support, stitched together by love and sorrow. There was a low murmured singing, cut through by a wrenching mournful keening.
This was no place for me. This was not the stuff of performative public fodder; I could see only hollowed-out fragility and an intensely private process. I left.
Not all death knocks are equal.
Monday’s Herald Sun article did not appear in a vacuum. Australia’s Home Affairs Minister had already decided Chol’s tragic death was fair game for a political crack at Victoria’s Labor government.
Chol had lost her life at the end of the worst fortnight for the African-Australian community in Victoria since January’s so-called ‘African gangs crisis’ hysteria reached its apogee.
The second-coming of the crisis was spurred not by a fresh criminal outbreak, but an episode of Channel 7’s Sunday Night current affairs program focussing on ‘African Gangs’.
Victoria’s opposition capitalised by distributing flyers vowing to ‘stop gangs hunting in packs’. With last weekend’s ‘Super Saturday’ cluster of by-elections imminent, Federal politicians were falling over themselves to comment on the ‘crisis’.
Since the Moomba riot of 2016, the Herald Sun has been pretty clear it considers Melbourne to be a city under siege from African gangs.
Interestingly, the paper had just published a piece from one of the journalists in its Leader community newspaper group in praise of living in multicultural Point Cook.
The story was shared on every Leader Facebook page and via the Herald Sun’s own socials.
It has since mysteriously vanished.
Suddenly, the out-of-control-Africans-in-Airbnb-rentals trope had a dramatic new twist—a young girl was dead. Could African gangs be pinned for it?
This was the context in which the Herald Sun’s front page article appeared. On the face of it, it was a ‘good get’.
Crime and its traumatised victims are tabloid bread and butter. The Herald Sun does it well.
Yet this latest article raised questions for many. Was the paper’s interest in Chol’s death perhaps stronger than it might otherwise have been, once police confirmed the primary suspects were also African-Australian?
Why wasn’t there the same urgency in the coverage of the fatal stabbing of Nicolas Manyok Thiak on the streets of Richmond in March, by a man not ‘of African appearance’?
Did the family realise that regardless of their requests for privacy, despite ignoring the Facebook overtures, the fact they spoke with a journalist meant her mother would be directly quoted on the next day’s front page?
The MEAA Journalist Code of Ethics requires journalists to respect private grief and personal privacy.
They must also use fair, responsible and honest means to obtain material. Journalists have a right to resist any compulsion to intrude.
I speak every week with people who have disparate and contradictory recollections of the same event, there is nothing new there.
Throw in grief, language barriers and cultural differences and it’s a sure-fire recipe for misunderstanding.
With all this in mind, having added the voices of Chol’s upset family to the swirling saga, I figured that was that.
Since I first started writing about the ‘African gangs crisis’, supremacists and garden-variety trolls have been regular guests in my Twitter mentions. But this was a sudden swarm. The penny dropped as one shared a link from last Tuesday night’s Bolt Report on Sky News—my thread about the article had become partial fodder for an eight-minute piece that was ostensibly a defence of the reporter, but effectively a vehicle to rail against ‘group think’.
Having spoken with the Herald Sun reporter, Bolt explained he ‘knew for a fact’ things had transpired exactly as his paper-mate had indicated. The on-record statements I had taken from the family who were also present? Dismissed outright as ‘hearsay’.
Bolt suggested some families welcomed the opportunity to ‘pay tribute’ to a lost one, conveniently omitting the fact the family had requested privacy and did not respond to Facebook messages offering just this opportunity.
He also couldn’t help sinking the boot further into the African-Australian community for good measure.
‘To me, the interview was a valuable reminder that also Africans can be the victims of crime of the few causing mayhem.’
The thrust of his TV piece was hardly helped by referring to Nyuon as ‘that Sudanese lawyer’.
He followed his TV piece with a lengthy column in the Herald-Sun on Thursday, arguing much the same thing.
Those critical of the coverage had elected to ‘go with the flow rather than tell you the truth’, whatever that even means. Yet I reflected.
I have never mentioned the journalist by name, as the death knock is a whole-of-newspaper responsibility and invariably something only done at the behest of someone higher up the newsroom food chain.
I don’t regret giving voice to the family and their concerns, particularly given the intractable divergence in views as to what transpired.
However, I erred. At some point in the Twitter thread I had suggested ‘heavy pestering’ had taken place in a vulnerable moment.
Despite being a social media thread, I should have approached the situation with the exacting rigour I would apply to any article I was publishing: providing the evidence or recollections offered by both sides, letting others draw their own conclusions.
As a journalist I have a privileged platform. My frustrations with the onslaught of negative and damaging media about the African-Australian community are real. But I do myself, the community and Chol’s family a disservice if I allow even the scantest chink through which to dismiss their concerns, by presenting them in a manner that can be discredited.
A Twitter war is at best a zero sum-game. If I have concerns about the way other reporters have gathered a story or presented some data, I have a choice. I can point it out to them directly, getting their backs up, or I can grab my notebook and pen and get out there into the community and share just some of these stories.
The Herald Sun may consider they took every necessary step and obtained full consent. The family nevertheless says its requests for privacy have not been respected. Something has gone wrong here.
But this is no time for tit-for-tat. Nothing anybody writes can ever change the fact Ojwanga Abalo has lost a daughter. Laa Chol is not coming home. There will be no more knocks on the door.
Benjamin Millar is a Melbourne-based reporter.