Thursday, March 09, 2006

What ails the American obit

This is from an obit of Luna Leopold in LAT by Elaine Woo:

From a LAT obit of Luna Leopold, hydrologist, by Elaine Woo:

“How does water move and when it moves, what happens? How does land shape water flow and how does water flow shape land? These are among the central issues that Luna solved,” said Char Miller, an environmental historian at Trinity University in San Antonio.

The problem here is that the obit writer, by the time she writes this, should consider herself enough of an expert to tell the reader exactly what Leopold's contributions were. The thing to do is interview the expert and then don't quote him. Quoting, to my mind, makes the statement less credible not more. It distracts and takes accountability away from the reporter, who should crave it.

Nothing against Elaine Woo, who I think is very good. I just hate the general tendency to avoid asserting anything as a fact. I consider this to be a form of bureaucratic obfuscation. American journalism is rife with it, and it is tedious and irritating.


Alana Baranick said...

Yet you kept that quote in the edited version of the obit that ran in The New York Sun. So it must have some value, Steve.

I have mixed feelings about quotes and the notion that just because we write an obit, we become an expert in a particular field.

I have a hard time doing obits on scientists. Although I learn a great deal from the exercise, I rely on established experts to tell me the significance of the deceased's inventions, research, etc., in layman's terms.

Most of the time - after interviewing the real experts and/or finding this significance through research - I can write what I have learned without quotes or attribution.

But sometimes, I'm not sure of myself. In those cases, I'd prefer to quote someone in the know.

Some quotes are just too good to pass up. I agree that the one you've cited isn't all that compelling. But it serves the purpose.

By the way, Steve. Did you see the item on Marilyn Johnson's book, "The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries," in Entertainment Weekly? You're mentioned in it.

I'll post more about Marilyn's book later. She's getting a lot of impressive media coverage.

Maybe folks who like her book will be intrigued enough to buy our book, "Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers." (I know you know the title of our book and Marilyn's. I'm just typing the titles so blog-surfers will know what we're talking about.)

Trudi Hahn Pickett said...

"The thing to do is interview the expert and then don't quote him. Quoting, to my mind, makes the statement less credible not more."

How very much I wish you were kidding, Steve.

To add to Alana's reasons for including quotes: It expands the knowledge of the reader by placing the deceased (or the living, if it's not an obit) within a context of the subject's peers. Gives the reader more places to look for information.

steve miller said...

I left it as a quote because, in this case, I was the editor - copy editor really - and not the writer. I can't study up on the topic enough on short notice to make these assertions. With, say, 2-3 hours of reporting, I can.

I'm not saying quotes have no place, but they are too often a substitute for either research or responsibility.