This is the website for the senior-level Journalism Ethics course required of students in the Journalism Minor at the University of San Francisco. We are delighted that non-minors are among us this Fall.
Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Thoughts about Obit Writing: Is There an Ethical Contradiction Here?
As we are reminded throughout The News Manual, news is about people and it is people who make much of the news. However, we report the things which they do day by day and week by week, a little bit at a time. It is sometimes good to gather together all the things done by a person, and write a round-up of their contribution to society. But when can we write such a review of a person's lifetime?
We can choose an occasion such as their retirement, or their 70th or 80th birthday. However, people who contribute in a big way to society often do not really retire at all, and many remain active beyond the age of 70 or 80. For this reason, the time to sum up somebody's lifetime's work is usually when they die. Such a piece of writing is called an obituary, or usually by its abbreviated title - an obit.
It serves the same function as a speech delivered at a person's funeral - it marks the proper respect due to the person who has died and gives them a proper send-off.
It would be unthinkable to bury the dead body of someone who has been a member of our family, without saying some words about them.
If a newspaper, radio or television station wants to be part of a community, it must mark the deaths of notable figures in that community. It must deliver those funeral speeches, as obits.
Nobody is perfect, and it would be dishonest to write an obituary which ignores the mistakes a person has made, and overstates the things they have done well. If you do this once, then your praise becomes worthless. What good is it to be praised by a newspaper, radio or television station which praises everyone?
An obituary should be a balanced account of the good and bad things which a person did. For example, the obituary of the former President of the United States, Richard Nixon, will need to include the shame and scandal of the Watergate break-in and the cover-up which followed, but it will also need to include the brilliance of his foreign policy.
There is a story of a priest delivering a funeral address. He spoke of the dead man as if he was perfect, exaggerating his good points and making no reference to his bad points. Finally, the dead man's son threw himself weeping on the coffin. "Dad!" he cried, "I had no idea you were so great!"
The priest's description was not accurate. People who knew a man should recognise him in the obituary which you write.
(Personal note: At my own dad's funeral, there was so much BS being spoken by the speakers, I got up and reminded the audience that my dad persevered in spite of all his failures, which was the lesson I thought his assembled grandkids and great grandkids should take away. My thoughts were greeted with stony faces by everyone outside the family. And a little later the preacher got up and more or less pointed out that my dad was very sad sometimes because his son was going to hell.)