When it comes to writing obituaries, your story is the last word on a person’s life. Don Gibb gives advice on how to write these sensitive stories in a way that gets everything right while humanizing, remembering and celebrating a person's life the way they deserve. With an introduction from Media magazine editor Dave McKie.

When it comes to writing obituaries, your story is the last word on a person’s life. Don Gibb gives advice on how to write these sensitive stories in a way that gets everything right while humanizing, remembering and celebrating a person's life the way they deserve. With an introduction from Media magazine editor Dave McKie.

 

Embracing the deadbeat
By David McKie

Despite the efforts of some media outlets to elevate it to an art form, the obituary could use more respect. A makeover, if you will. 

In an interesting piece she penned for the Globe and Mail back in December of 2008, entitled Deadication: Confessions of an obituarist, Sandra Martin observed that “Despite our curiosity about the freshly deceased, many people think that writing obituaries is a wacky preoccupation for somebody who could be out chasing fire engines.

“I've grown accustomed to the arched eyebrow, the flash of revulsion, the involuntary step backward, followed by: ‘But, that's so morbid!’”

Morbidity has little, if anything, to do with it. Writing about a person’s life can, and should be, storytelling at its finest. Celebratory, even.

This comes to mind when I recall the death of Carleton University communications professor, Paul Attallah, who succumbed to liver cancer in 2009 at the age of 54. Paul always graciously agreed to write many stories for Media magazine – usually days before deadline —  and did so with great flair. But I knew little about this good-humored and intelligent academic, until reading his obituary.

“When he was a teenager,” the story’s lead informed us, “Paul’s favorite publication was the TV Guide.

“He used it to find sitcoms he would watch with his sister, Julie, but it also served as an early fascination with television that would mark his career.”

Not only is this a good piece of writing, but it’s wonderful storytelling that helps us understand the person behind the academic.

So, counter intuitive as it may seem, perhaps we should embrace obits, using them as opportunities to spin memorable tales.

That’s certainly Don Gibb’s view.  In his recent Writer’s toolbox column for Media magazine, Don tackles this topic and gives the skeptics and the fearful something positive to think about.                         

***

The final word on a life lived
By Don Gibb

 

He saw the news clipping in my hand and wanted to know if it was the story my newspaper had run when his son died a year earlier on Victoria Day weekend.

It was, and I had to agree when he said it was a stark and impersonal four paragraphs.

The usual:  A 21-year-old London man was killed when his motorcycle …

Dead is …

 “Why didn’t a reporter call me?” he asked.

“Would you have wanted to talk to a reporter?” I replied, somewhat surprised by his question.

“I don’t know, but I would have liked the call.”

What brought me to his house was an assignment to write a Victoria Day weekend piece reminding readers to be careful on the highways. The first long weekend of the year always produced too many deaths on the road.

So he had agreed to talk to me as a father who had lost a family member in a highway accident the previous May long weekend.

His comment – “why didn’t a reporter call me?” — stuck with me and changed my approach to tackling one of the most dreaded assignments in a newsroom: Get a “pickup” — a picture of a victim of a car accident, murder, drowning or any other catastrophe.

Granted, social media have made the task easier today because they allow reporters to avoid knocking on someone’s door or phoning the family of a victim. However, it is a poor substitute, in my view, for visiting and talking to those closest to the victim.

Still, the practice of doing “pickups” has always divided newsrooms and reporters into two camps – those who believe it is an invasion of privacy and exploits people at a time when they are most vulnerable and those who believe it is part of our job. But, no matter how tough the assignment, we need to look at why we should do it.

Too often we settle for the bare facts of a police report, choosing to ignore – largely because of our own discomfort – that the people we are writing about had lives.

The collapse of the World Trade Center towers was about people who were loved, who had achievements and who had future goals. The New York Times wrote 200-word profiles on more than 2,400 individuals who died on Sept. 11, 2001. It’s important to note that their families were willing to share their stories.

Titled "Portraits of Grief", Times reporters spent more than a year compiling the profiles. Days after the attack, the profiles began filling one or more pages daily for four months. Not every family chose to talk and sometimes survivors of a victim could not be found. But of the roughly 2,800 people who died, 86 per cent of their families willingly spoke to reporters.

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If families chose not to participate, Times reporters respected their wishes and did not go elsewhere to pursue a profile.

Like Sept. 11, the Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah Federal Building 16 years earlier was about people. “You have to put a face on something like this,” the news director of a local TV station said at the time. “Otherwise, what you would see is a bombed building with a lot of steel and concrete. That’s not what this story is about at all. It’s about the people who were affected. There is no way to comprehend the toll of human life if you cannot connect with another person.” In Oklahoma, 168 people were killed in the explosion.

***

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whether for political or personal reasons, imposed a policy of privacy in April 2006 for Canada’s returning dead from Afghanistan. It took only a month for his government to overturn this policy after the father of one dead soldier, Capt. Nicola Goddard, used his eulogy to criticize Harper for barring media from covering repatriation ceremonies. “I would like to think Nicola died to protect our freedoms, not to restrict them … Ours has been a very public grief.”

From that point on, families decided whether to allow media access.

***

A former reporter once told me when she was sent to do a pickup, she simply drove around in a cab, then returned to the office to tell her editor the family declined. Others have chosen to face the wrath of their editors by saying “no” to doing a pickup.

I once asked two young reporters to tell me about their first pickup. There were common threads in their responses. The fact their stories involved the death of children made the experience even worse for them.

“A lot of people think a reporter must be heartless to knock on a door and be so uncaring as to ask for a picture. Nothing can be father from the truth,” one wrote.

“It’s like writing a tribute to someone and sometimes it’s appreciated by the family. I guess that’s how I reconcile with the intrusion I make,” said the other.

In both cases, the families made a point of expressing their appreciation. A brother, who had been leery of his sister talking to a reporter, thanked the reporter for writing about his dead, six-year-old nephew.

Of course, others prefer their privacy or need more time before talking to a reporter. But families should not be shunned simply because reporters find the task of approaching them too uncomfortable or, in their minds, intrusive.

It is an invasion of privacy when families say it is an invasion of privacy – not when reporters draw their own conclusions. Families have as much right to speak – if they so choose — as police officers, ambulance attendants, coroners and others who are part of an accident or crime scene.

After my interview with the father of the 21-year-old motorcycle accident victim, I was more at ease with the pickup assignment. I would tell family members I thought I owed it to them to call because I was writing a story about their loved one. I was turned down, but not often. Reporters should not deny them the right to decide.

Our goal is to get all sides of a story – and tragedy is no different.

***

In the days before social media, Rick Mofina, a former crime reporter at The Calgary Herald and now a celebrated crime novel writer, would write or fax letters to survivors, asking to speak to them about the death of a family member. Sometimes he even asked police detachments to deliver his requests.

Cynics will conclude that he was simply trying to get a story. But Mofina wanted his stories to be a reflection of a person’s life beyond the clinical notes of a police officer. He was writing about a life lived rather than an accident where one car was northbound and the other car was southbound when they collided on a local highway.

In one example, if Mofina hadn’t contacted the family for a picture and comment, his story would have sounded like so many others involving the death of a 19-year-old and his father when their truck crashed and burned on a trip to British Columbia.

Instead, he wrote this:           

Calgary teen Bryan Schmidt dreamed of serving as a missionary – but he died never knowing his church had chosen him for the work.

Just after he left on the Vancouver trip, his bishop called to say Schmidt had received his mission.

Later, the newspaper’s ombudsman wrote: What lifted Mofina’s story of the accident out of the ordinary “was his description of the lives and ambitions of the victims.”

Schmidt’s brother wrote a letter thanking Mofina for his handling of the story. “The Schmidt families are so very grateful that you approached us and wrote a story of the tragic loss of two members of our family … We all have more gentle and kind feelings toward the media … You are telling the community this is what we lost.”

Mofina told the ombudsman that in writing such stories, “you aim to find the most human qualities about the person you are writing about, the things that people will remember them for. Because what you are doing, what you should be doing, is celebrating their life through their death.”

Everyone deserves this opportunity.

***

Suggestions on how to handle grief assignments.

  1. It is best to meet face-to-face on such a sensitive assignment. If this is not practical, send an e-mail to see if someone will talk to you by phone. An e-mail gives you a chance to explain what you are doing and why someone should talk to you.
  2. We owe it to survivors to contact them. They have as much right to comment as those who investigate deaths. They also have the right to decline comment, but reporters at least need to give them the opportunity. I found an easy introduction: “My name is and I’m calling from. I thought I owed it to you to call because I’m writing a story about …”
  3. Stay away from the hackneyed “how do you feel” question. How do you think? The answer will be predictable.
  4. Make sure the tone of your questions fits this occasion. Respect family members and give them time to answer. Don’t bombard them with your questions.
  5. Don’t tell a person you “know how they feel.” You don’t and your attempt to offer such support doesn’t help.
  6. Do not harass.
  7. If you are turned down at the door, leave your business card or phone number in the mailbox or attached to the door in case someone has a change of heart.
  8. Find your comfort zone – a way to make you feel better about doing one of the newsroom’s least popular assignments.
  9. Use social networks, but not as your sole source. They should not become an excuse to avoid contact with survivors in person or by phone.
  10. Try not to get emotionally involved. It will interfere with asking the right questions to tell a person’s story. Not that you should be detached. Show empathy, but concentrate on the details of a person’s life and death.
  11. Your story is the final word on a person’s life. It likely will end up in a religious book or scrapbook. Make sure you get everything right, especially a person’s name.
  12. Should you cry later, consider it normal. Lots of reporters have done this after covering and writing about tragedy.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2012 issue of Media Magazine. Check it out here

Don Gibb was a reporter and city editor at The London Free Pressfrom 1968-88. He taughtreporting at Ryerson’s School of Journalism from 1988 until his retirement in 2008. He can bereached at dgibb1@cogeco.ca