Thursday, October 18, 2007

Judgment Call

5 Weeks After He Disappeared, Still No Obituaries for Fossett.” The article published by The New York Times explores the nightmare of most editors who handle obituaries; writing about someone who is, in fact, alive.

The disappearance of well-known adventurer Steve Fossett, while flying across the Nevada desert over five weeks ago, has created an unusual predicament:

When a person vanishes without a trace, when, if ever, should a news organization publish an obituary?

Adam Bernatein, writer for The Washington Post, began preparing an obituary almost immediately, but it has not yet been published because he hasn’t been officially declared dead. The Post is not alone, other major newspapers took similar steps and have also held back because of danger in presumption:

We don’t want to put anyone in the grave, so to speak.

But when do you decided? For Time magazine, the time came on Oct. 3, when the government halted the search for Mr. Fossett. However, the end of the search did not prompt other news organizations to move forward.

Situations like this are rare but hard to navigate. Newspapers were hesitant to presume John F. Kennedy Jr. dead after his plane crashed in 1999, but most major publications ran obituaries within four days.

Even after reading the article I have no idea how I would respond to running an obituary in such a situation. There will ever be a clear answer so I guess it’s just a judgment call. My first thought was to wait because once it’s out there you can’t take it back. There is no, “Oops my bad,” in journalism. But at the same time you don’t want to find yourself being scooped by your competitors for the sake of the family. I personally don’t think that you should ever publish an actual obituary on someone if there is never a confirmed death. While the concept needs to be addressed I don’t think it needs to be done in the form of an obituary.

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