Jim Pumarlo, Community Newspaper Training
 
 

News obits warrant responsible, sensitive reporting

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The Inlander/July 11, 2005 A resident was honored as Good Neighbor by a local civic club. A city employee won statewide recognition for service to community. Most editors would likely agree that both citations deserve mention in the individuals' obituaries. Families and readers would expect no less. Most editors would likely agree that both citations deserve mention in the individuals' obituaries. Families and readers would expect no less. Contrast those circumstances with a leading business executive who was involved in a fraud case involving collusion among companies in contract bids. Or an elected official who was forced to resign office due to professional misconduct. Those facts should be included in these individuals' obits, too, if newspapers are reporting all the news. Both deeds and misdeeds are part of people's life histories. In similar vein, newspapers have a responsibility to report the uncomfortable circumstances of deaths — namely, suicides. As with any sensitive story, however, there's a right way and a wrong way, to report the details. Obituaries are among the staples of community news. They prompt extra scrutiny from readers as the reports often are permanent keepsakes. That's why newspapers should take time to develop written policies for reporting deaths in obituaries and news columns. Suicide reports stir the strongest emotions among grieving families and friends. These stories prompt the most strident complaints that a newspaper is sticking its nose into personal affairs. Newspapers also face resistance from authorities regarding release of information, even though cause of death is public information under many state laws. The incidence of suicide — it was the No. 3 cause of death among people ages 15 to 24, according to a U.S. surgeon general's report in 1997 — proves that the topic deserves examination as a broader social concern. But the epidemic doesn't make the issue any easier for newspapers, especially in small towns. Even newspapers that reject the idea of reporting suicides cannot ignore that some circumstances demand an exception. For example, an individual ties up traffic on a high bridge before jumping to death. Police officers surround a house where someone is holding hostages at gunpoint; the person commits suicide rather than surrendering. A mayor takes his life. Many newspapers adopt a policy to report suicides only if they involve public officials or if they occur in public settings. The three previous examples fit nicely into those categories. But the definition of what is a public or private setting, or who is a public or private individual, is not always so clear. As a general rule, suicides are best reported in a story separate from the obituary. It's little surprise that suicide reports — no matter how infrequent — will generate reader reaction. But the everyday handling of obituaries generally prompts a greater number of questions from readers. It's important for editors to understand that what may be considered "just another" obit to them is very personal and sensitive for families. Many editors have vivid and uneasy recollections of trying to explain to grieving families why certain items can and cannot be included in obituaries. Newspapers are wise to develop written guidelines for an assortment of news items, especially for obituaries. Deaths are reported in a variety of ways — from paid death notices to routine obituaries to deaths that are front-page news. For paid notices, individuals provide and pay for the exact wording of an obituary. Newspapers still should review the copy to ensure it is tasteful and does not raise any red flags — such as potential legal action. News obituaries can fall into two groups. At some small newspapers — where the number of deaths is manageable - staff reporters write news obituaries for everyone. Reporters review and report facts from information provided by families. The practice allows subjectivity and freedom to carry more detail on certain aspects of individuals' lives. But guidelines still should outline the standard information to include. For newspapers that publish obituaries free, guidelines are necessary because the number can vary from zero to upward of 10 in a given edition. A standard format is important since obituaries can be written by several staff writers. Funeral homes can assist in the writing and submission of obituaries if they have a copy of the newspaper's guidelines and format. Some sample guidelines to consider: Obituaries must have a local connection — however that is determined. The clearest connection is local survivors. The deceased also may have been known to many people through their profession or some other presence. Flowery language will not be accepted. Cause of death will not be reported in an obituary unless requested by the family. Deaths by unnatural causes will be reported in separate news stories. Up to three hobbies/interests of the deceased will be noted. Names of survivors will be limited to: parents; brothers and sisters and any spouses; sons and daughters and any spouses. "Stand-alone" in-laws will not be listed unless they are the only local survivor. Requests for identifying special friends, caregivers, etc. are evaluated on an individual basis. Individual names of grandchildren or great-grandchildren are not listed among survivors. Obituaries simply will list the numbers. Photos of individuals that were taken more than 20 years ago will not be accepted. Implementing a policy is the second of three important steps, however. The first step is to develop guidlines by visting with as many people as possible both within and outside the newspaper office. The last step is to clearly and regularly communicate the policy. In the end, consistency is most important. Obituaries are a foundation of community news. Families and funeral homes scrutinize death notices to make sure everyone receives equal treatment.

Pumarlo.com • Jim Pumarlo • Community Newsroom Success Strategies • 1327 W. Sixth St. • Red Wing, MN • 55066 • (651) 380-4295