Sunday, December 16, 2012

Obits on massacred children

"How do you write an obit for a 6-year-old?" asks Washington Post (and former Tampa Bay Times) reporter Brady Dennis on Twitter following the Dec. 14 slayings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in New Jersey.
"And then for 15 more 6-year-olds? And then for four 7-year-olds?"
Ou conventional wisdom seems to indicate it's pretty hard to do effectively. To borrow a phrase from Kay Powell, the "arc or a life" isn't easy to track below middle age, at least in a way that's comfortable for us as storytellers. We want the story to be about the kid, not the kid's parents or anyone else. So what is there to say that will distinguish one 6-year-old from another in any memorable way?
All of this must be produced in a few hours, as the rest of the world's media are running down the same sources.  This sudden flood of attention sends some grieving people into shutdown mode.  Friends who feel powerless anyway take it upon themselves to ward off cameras and request privacy for the family.
Below are some snapshot obits by Matt Sedensky of the New York Times, of 12 students and four adults -- and until I figure out this linking in a way I can trust, the story is here:

I always admire reporters who find a way to crank out even miniature thumbnail tidbits of people who have died. Perfectionism only helps as a hedge against making mistakes; otherwise it's counterproductive. Here's what I thought Sedensky did really well in an almost impossible situation.
He used what he had. Speaking for myself, there are times I've felt I should have a consistent voice across different obits. It's taken a while to accept that just as no two lives are the same, obits can emphasize very different kind of elements, from personality to the role someone played in a breaking news event. Lauren Rousseau, a teacher, had baked cupcakes to take to a party Friday night after she and her boyfriend watched The Hobbit. School psychologist Mary Sherlach, on the other hand, ran directly toward the young man weilding a semi-automatic rifle and lost her life in the process, and it is this detail that stands out for me, at least, in reading her story.
Whenever possible, he talked to people. Portraits of the children include images apparently gleaned from social media sites and the comments that appear below. That's okay, but the results there are less than spectacular. We learn that one girl visited Santa Claus and that another wore a pink polo dress, and and a friend of the girl in the dress thought she looked a lot like her brother.
Compare that against what this reporter found through apparent contact with human sources. Jesse Lewis often accompanied his dad to construction sites and to the coffee shop. Benjamin Wheeler's rabbi says the boy, 6, was unafraid to lead Hanukah dances and get others on the floor. Chase Kowalski, 7, recently told a neighbor about completeing and winning his first mini-triathlon.
Those are a couple of features about this unenviable assignment that impress me as a reader. I would imagine (but don't know) that Sedensky had some help, with others supplying him feeds. But to produce this much, under so much duress and with competition everywhere, is freaking amazing.

Andy Meacham

1 comment:

stephenmiller said...

I find these kid obits almost intolerably painful. The ones we ran at the WSJ (which thank god I had no involvement in) are far more in-depth and well-researched. They came out a couple days later, I think. But I can't really read them - maybe it's that I have a 10-year-old son, maybe it's because you learn nothing from them other than the random horror this spree produced. It's kind of like the NYT Portraits in Grief after 9/11 except even more horror inducing it its banality. Blah.