People don't want reporters to call them after a death, unless they do

Mamamia | The New York Times
Australian TV reporter Sarah Harris looks back on the "death knocks" she's done over her career -- a "few dozen," she reckons.

I’ve been physically threatened. Screamed at. Spat on. I’ve had doors slammed in my face, been pelted with beer bottles and rotten food. Our crew car’s been damaged. But you just have to wear it. Grief does strange things to people. If I’d had a loved one torn away from me, I’m not sure how I would react to a reporter knocking on my door.

Harris argues that mourning people often do want to talk, and that reaching out is her job: "And a big part of it is helping people tell their story. It frustrates me when people accuse journos of preying on grieving families for 'ratings'. If anything, raw heartbreak can be a turn off for viewers."

New York Times ombudsman Arthur Brisbane talks with Daniel Slotnik, the Times employee responsible for a different sort of unwelcome contact with grieving people: Notifying them their loved one's obituary will not be featured in the New York Times.

“You usually just express your sympathy,” Slotnick tells him. “You say, unfortunately, we have to pass on a lot of worthy people. It is a very limited amount of space, and there are only a certain number of people who can do the obits. You never want to suggest that they don’t deserve one or that the life is unworthy.”

Brisbane also quotes my favorite Times obituary writer, Margalit Fox, who discusses some tips of the trade:

“You really have to take in through inhalation every facet of this stranger’s life. By the time deadline rolls around and you have spent four or five hours in intense communion with this person, if you are lucky and the planets are in the right alignment, you can make an exhalation onto the page, which is not only swift and accurate but also has some of those resonant phrases.”

Related: How the Times put together Shadid’s obituary | "The Story Behind ‘The Most Bad-Ass Obit Ever’" (Jim Romenesko) | Denver Post obituary celebrates hell-raising, booze, guns and cars

Correction: This post originally misspelled Daniel Slotnik's last name.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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