Sunday, May 9, 2010

Interview with a Professional Obituary Writer

Interview with a Professional Obituary Writer On How A Newspaper Obit Might Have Gotten an Obit Wrong Despite the Best of Intentions

QUESTION: Dr Obit, did you read the recent obit about Mr So and So? I think it appeared on April 7.

ANSWER: Yes, I read it the day it came out.

QUESTION: Did you have any reservations about the obit?

ANSWER: None at all. I loved the piece!

QUESTION: It was a lovely piece, true, a very well written. A classic, almost. But I was wondering if you
swallowed the obit "fact", when some of the facts were based on hearsay and family lore?

ANSWER: Seemed true to me then and seems true to me now. What's your question, pesky man?

QUESTION: Well, Dr Obit, I am just wondering if it is possible the the "facts" might be otherwise....

ANSWER: Such as....

QUESTION: Well, I wrote an email to the reporter and I know he received it, because I have contacted reporters many times before and they always replied. But he did not reply to me, not once, and he apparently complained and sicked the legal department on me.

ANSWER: Really? Why? Were you threatening her or threatening a lawsuit against the paper? Or were you asking for a correction or a retraction? Why would he refuse to answer a fellow reporter's polite emails and sick the paper's lawyer on you?

QUESTION: I have no idea.

ANSWER: Seems strange to me. But let me tell you a few things, Grasshopper. First of all, the few people I know who have written to taht reporter have never received replies from him. A lot of reporters, editors and publishers receive so many emails that they don't answer many of them. So don't take it personally.

QUESTION: Okay, I won't. The lawyer's letter was friendly at any rate, and he even signed the letter with his first name and addressed me by my nickname. So I am not worried about the paper suing me.

ANSWER: Who said the paper is going to sue you? You mean ''NEWSPAPER VS PERSKY MAN''?

QUESTION: Nobody's suing anybody, Dr Obit. We are just chatting. The legal guy's been very sweet. And the ombudsman also sent me a nice email saying he would look into my pesky questions to see if there is anything to them. Just a routine form letter. And then he sent me a more personal letter.

ANSWER: Well, Pesky Man, pay attention, because it does appear that the reporter probably maybe might have forwarded your note to him to his superiors. Otherwise, how would a lawyer in Legal know about this? Also, unless you wrote directly to ombusman, it would seem reasonable that he or his superiors forwarded your message to the ombud office.

QUESTION: The ombud in her personal note to me asked me to back up my line of questioning.

ANSWER: Good! The message you received from her seems perfectly reasonable to me. The paper can't print a correction or clarification without some documentation.

QUESTION: But I do not want a correction in the paper or a clarification or a retraction.

ANSWER: I see. What do you want?

QUESTION: Nirvana.

ANSWER: Newspaper nirvana. Cute.

QUESTION: So what's next?

ANSWER: Well, Grasshopper, first, they'll want you to specify the errors in the obit, if there were any.
Then they'll ask: How do you know these are errors? Where's the documentation?
Are you personally connected to the issue?
And the biggie: Are you or someone else going to sue the paper for the error(s)? That might be the reason for the lawyer's involvement.

QUESTION: I see. Do you agree that obits should be fact-checked and vetted just like news stories?

ANSWER: Yes! Obits should be fact-checked and vetted the same as news stories. I expect the reporter found information in the paper's archives to support what he wrote ....

QUESTION: I'm not sure. According to the obit, it looked like he took the family lore as fact and repeated that as fact in his obit. I do not think he looked into the archives where an older story tells a bit of a different story. You know, family lore is a lot different from facts.

ANSWER: Use that as back up. Send the paper all the information you have amassed and ask them to check your facts against their facts? Do you want a correction in the paper? Or a retraction?

QUESTION: I have sent in the smoking guns I found online. There are three major points I found. We shall see. But Dr Obit, I want to make it clear to you, I do not seek a correction or a retraction in the paper. That would be embarrasssing to the family of the deceased, and I have no wish to hurt them at all at this time of mourning for their father and husband and loving brother. I am keeping the family out of this. I respect them, and I also mourn the death of their father. Really.

ANSWER: Well, Pesky Man with good intuition and good gumshoe digging skills online, let me tell you this, from my perspective as a veteran obit writer. Personally, I would not have used words like "creator" in describing the subject of the story in regard to the product or invention. He was a salesman and marketing person, not an artist or inventor. It's likely and obvious to me that the company designed the product itself.

QUESTION: Really? You agree with me?

ANSWER: I'm guessing that he came up with the idea and may have sketched his notion of what the prodcut should look like, then handed it to an artist who finished the job.

QUESTION: That's my gut reaction, too! We'er on the same page. Which page was the obit writer on?

ANSWER: I would not blame him for the language used in his obit. Often, editors or copy editors will change or drop a word or two from an obit and completely distort the facts.

QUESTION: You are right. There are several actors in this drama. I will keep digging. In a polite way, of course.

ANSWER: You know, sir, this all reminds me of an obit from the 1990s which carried the headline, "The creator of the Hokey Pokey." I don't know your age, Pesky Man, but in case you're not familiar with it, the Hokey Pokey is a dance that has been popular with children and adults in the U.S. since around 1948. The dance existed long before that in England and Australia. American soldiers were introduced to it during World War II.

QUESTION: I used to do the hokey pokey, too, as a kid growing up in the 1950s.

ANSWER: Jeez, you're THAT old? I thought you were in your 30s!

QUESTION: 1949er.

ANSWER: Anyway, to make a long story short, the "creator" of the Hokey Pokey did not actually create the dance. He got a U.S. copyright for the song he wrote about it. His obit never said he created or invented the dance. The newspaper editor who wrote the headline did that.

QUESTION: Dr Obit, you've been a great source of help here.
Thank you for your time.

ANSWER: No problem, sir. I got a deadline now to get back to, if you'll excuse the pun. An obit writer's life is never dull. People are dying every day.

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