Friday, October 07, 2005

The lies families tell (in obituaries)

Trudi Hahn's reaction to the post on the Romenesko column: Hear, hear, Trudi!
Her post is near the middle:
http://www.poynter.org/article_feedback/article_feedback_list.asp?user=&id=89873

4 comments:

Claire Martin said...

You'll like this, Amy.
I wrote Trudi to tell her that her comment nailed it with the referrence to rewriting history, an aspect of citizen obits that I cautioned Steve Outing about on the phone and in the email he quoted in his column.

He was a little less than transparent by failing to mention his own personal experience with revisionism:

In the column, he did not say that his dad's current wife was bitterly opposed to even a "citizen obit." I had to talk to her, of course, when I was working on the story, and she gave a somewhat grudging consent to the news obituary, though she made it clear that she did not want her husband's first wife -- Outing's mother -- mentioned at all in the obit.

I feel it was a little disingenuous to advocate for citizen obits without noting his own personal experience of a big pitfall.

And that wasn't even the worst case of revisionism I've seen. A couple months ago, a son completely eliminated his mother's current -- living! -- husband, and the surname she'd adopted when she married him. That was a nightmare. The family fallout left him deservedly in a nuclear family winter.

Amy said...

Ha! My co-worker Charles commented to would-be citizen obit writers: "You never legally married that woman you've been telling everyone is your wife for the past 15 years, you had kids with your mistresses, you never served in Vietnam, you were 12 years old when you served in World War II, and you died of cocaine overdoses and shotgun suicides. You also erased your predeceased children from memory and died from car crashes because you were drunk and some of you sat around watching TV all of your lives living off disability. But you all lived life to the fullest, and you all loved your family, and you will all be sorely missed while you fly with the angels."

Steve Outing said...

Claire wrote:
"He was a little less than transparent by failing to mention his own personal experience with revisionism:

"In the column, he did not say that his dad's current wife was bitterly opposed to even a "citizen obit." I had to talk to her, of course, when I was working on the story, and she gave a somewhat grudging consent to the news obituary, though she made it clear that she did not want her husband's first wife -- Outing's mother -- mentioned at all in the obit."

I've been on vacation or I would've chimed in on this discussion/criticism of my Poynter piece. I felt that I could make my point without interjecting information that felt too personal to bandy about publicly. (For instance, I didn't link to the Blogger or Flickr areas I set up for my father -- and explained why.) I quoted Claire as pointing out the revisionism problem (with citizen obits, and with the reporting challenges faced by professional obit writers), and felt that was enough. (Actually, the topic is probably worth a separate story sometime.) Sorry you wanted more personal stuff than I felt comfortable airing, Claire. (And I have no problem with this being discussed here in a small professional forum.)

Reading some of the criticisms of my piece, I feel a bit misunderstood. I made it clear that "citizen obits" serve to supplement professionally written ones. It's unrealistic to think that you all are going to write more each day, or that your publishers will hire more writers. So citizen obits for those left out by you are a big improvement over death classifieds, for those willing to go to the trouble of writing them. Nothing in citizen obits takes away from your professional work. Just as citizen journalism doesn't reduce the need or demand for professional reporting, citizen obits don't threaten your jobs. (Actually, it might change your job, if you're asked to also be an editor of citizen obits.)

Sure, the citizen obit is a can full of worms, for all the reasons folks have cited. But it's unrealistic to think that professional journalists will continue in their role as sole arbiter of every obit that's published. The nature of the Internet and the direction of media trends makes citizen obits and citizen reporting inevitable. So we as a profession need to figure this out -- how to have citizen obits co-exist with professionally written/researched ones; how to provide some vetting to citizen obits.

Before you pooh-pooh the idea, look at the larger citizen-journalism picture. Many who are experimenting with this concept facilitate the audience providing some checks and balances. If a citizen obit leaves out a key family member, for instance, then there must be a way for an aggrieved party to correct the record through either comments appended to the obit -- or maybe the citizen obit is a wiki where other family members and friends can add, delete and revise it. This is an area of journalism that cries out for some experimentation.

Alana Baranick said...

welcome to our ongoing discussion on obits, steve outing. i hope you will visit this blog regularly and offer your thoughts on obit-related matters.

your poynter centerpiece has generated a lot of interest, as you can see. it also has caused me (and probably my fellow obit writers) to think about how to do a better job of covering obits.

i've got lots of ideas that i expect to present to the plain dealer, cleveland, ohio, after i've thought them through.

the chief obstacle for any of my ideas that involve printing obituaries at no charge is money. who's going to pay for it?

if we come up with something workable, i'll post it here and/or inform my fellow grimsters and you via email.