Obits reflect bias ‘of our forebears,’ NYT editor says

New York Times obituaries editor Bill McDonald said “I understand the complaint” that the Times publishes far more obituaries of men than women. “But I don’t accept the notion that the predominance of men on our pages is a reflection of sexism or male insensitivity or any other kind of ingrained bias on the part of the obituaries editors, as Margaret Sullivan and others imply.”

Sullivan, the Times’ public editor, wrote Monday that “Obituaries are chosen on the basis of the newsworthiness of their subjects; but that is subjective. It’s not outrageous to wonder what might change if more women were involved in all aspects of their selection and presentation.”

In an email, McDonald wrote, “I would submit that it’s a reflection of social history.”

Our mission is to note the deaths and explore the lives of people of one of two (or more) generations removed who essentially made news or reached a level of fame or achieved something that had wide impact. That’s a high bar. That said, we actually make an effort to reflect more diversity on our pages, within that standard of newsworthiness. The fact remains, though, that women and minorities of past generations were not allowed much of a chance to move and shake the world — and to have their obituaries appear one day in The New York Times. The fact remains that the world of the 1940s, 50s, 60s and beyond was essentially a white man’s world. (This is not news.) If our pages reflect entrenched bias, it was that of our forebears. We’re a rear-view mirror on the past, not a reflection of the world as it is.

Right now the numbers are just not there — not yet, at any rate. As more recent generations die out, we’ll certainly see a marked increase in the proportion of women (and minorities) on the obit pages.

Still, people will say, well, you’re not trying hard enough, or you need to redefine newsworthiness. But rarely, as in this case, do these correspondents provide a concrete example of a deserving woman we’ve ignored.

I would also caution against drawing conclusions from an arbitrary database — of, say, 66 obits. (Why not 67?) It may be that 10 percent of those were about women, but if you look at all the Times obits this year, since Jan. 1, you’ll see that women constituted closer to 20 percent. (Which I think is a fairer representation of where women of past generations stood in terms of leadership roles.)

As I said, this is not a new issue for those of us on the obits desk. In fact, when I started this job, the one person who explained this whole phenomenon to me most lucidly was a longtime deputy obits editor whose news judgment regarding obits was second to none. She was a feminist to the core but a journalist foremost, and when she had to answer this complaint, as she did often, she would say pretty much what I’ve just said.

Related: New York Times is still mostly writing obituaries about men

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