On the ethics of family obit writing

When I finished the first draft of Uncle Bob’s obit last week, I shared it as a Google Doc with family members and invited their “edits, trims or additions.”

Although I failed to realize it at the time, I was making a fundamental declaration of my loyalties, the sort of critical ethical distinction addressed so precisely by Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach in “The Elements of Journalism.”

“The first loyalty” of journalists, they argue, is not to the subject of coverage, nor is to the writer or the advertiser or even the reader/viewer/listener. Instead, they insist, journalists owe their biggest obligation to “citizens.”

For the sake of this discussion, I’ll interpret “citizens” broadly enough to include not just those with a particular legal status but everyone with a potential stake in the truth of a story at hand.

From that perspective, I liked the first draft of my obit better than the fourth, the version that found its way into Sunday’s Courier-Journal and Legacy.com in return for a fee of just over $650 ($65 plus $8.70 a line).

Bob was the last of his generation of Lichtefelds, and left no immediate survivors. My wife, Carol, is among five surviving nieces and nephews, along with the widow of a nephew who passed away four years ago.

It turns out that the family took seriously my invitation to help edit Bob’s obit.

One cousin pointed out that a paragraph about the pharmacies that Bob’s father owned in Louisville was extraneous to a story about Bob.

I liked the detail, which I’d unearthed from a YouTube video I discovered of Bob reminiscing about his father. But I’d just participated in a workshop on revision run by Dan Okrent, who invoked the KYLD imperative  -- “kill your little darlings.” As much as I liked the anecdote, cousin Martha was right. It had to go.

Someone else objected to including the cause of death, noting that Bob was a private person who would not be comfortable revealing such information.

This is where the ethics kicked in. If telling as much truth as possible is the first goal of a journalist, then cause of death certainly belongs in every obit when it’s known. As the family publicist, though, I was forced to place a higher priority on other goals, among them respect for the dead and his survivors. After a little hand-wringing, it wasn’t a tough call. Bob died after “a brief illness.”

Less significant but just as difficult was trimming the amount Bob paid in rent for what I described as his “modest apartment.” In the journalistic spirit of “getting the name of the dog,” I hated to part with the precise dollar figure. But then I realized I had learned how much he paid in rent only because one of Carol’s cousins shared the amazingly low rent amount with me not as a journalist but as a member of the extended family.

In the discussion that led up to its deletion, a new nugget about Bob’s life emerged: He had lived in that modest apartment for 50 years, a telling detail that stirred no objection from my familial copy desk.

Beneath the surface of all this is a question that New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote about Sunday: The wishes of the dearly departed.

Addressing privacy concerns with N.R. Kleinfield’s remarkable 8,000-word excavation of the life of George Bell, Sullivan noted that, as private as Mr. Bell was, his best friend and others listed in his will told the paper that they believed Mr. Bell “would get a kick out of” Kleinfield’s revelations.

Kleinfeld’s was a hell of a story and, harsh as it may sound, his first loyalty was not to Mr. Bell or his friends. Instead, it lay with the millions of readers and others who might benefit from his moving exploration of a lonely death. That’s not to say Mr. Bell’s possible wishes should be ignored -- challenging as they were to discern -- just that other considerations took precedence in reaching a sound ethical decision.

My assignment was far more modest, of course, with quite different loyalties. Each story of a life and a death involves different circumstances and different ethical obligations. I’m grateful to the family Bob left behind for reminding me of mine.

  • Bill Mitchell

    Bill Mitchell is a Poynter Affiliate who most recently led Poynter’s entrepreneurial and international programs and served as a member of its faculty. Previously, Bill headed Poynter.org for 10 years.

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