Obituary Conversation

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By Sarah Barchus

I contacted Jim Buchta at the Star Tribune, the reporter who wrote Gerhard Haukebo's obituary.

Buchta's covers real estate so I was curious about how he got the obituary assignment and about his writing approach.

I learned that the Star Tribune has a rotating "online shift" that essentially requires reporters to drop their beat for a week to cover breaking news and to write an obituary. Buchta was tipped off about Haukebo's death from the Star Tribune's obituary department after a student from one of Haukebo's language camps called the Tribune's editor.

Buchta wrote the story from a paid obituary write-up containing basic facts and from an interview with Haukebo's daughter. Buchta said his main goal in writing an obituary is to describe to the public who the deceased was, rather than just what they did. Buchta said the story needs the "nuts-and-bolts facts, but also color." He said that he began the obituary with an anecdote from Haukebo's childhood because it showed the beginnings Haukebo's passion, which would ultimately lead to the accomplishments that made him newsworthy.

Buchta doesn't write obituaries very often, but he said that when he does he tries to "switch it up" and keep the story from sounding like a paid obituary or a resume and avoid the "risk of the list" by talking to two or three people who knew the deceased personally.

Buchta said that he approaches these people by first introducing himself and sympathizing for their loss. He then says that the deceased sounded like an interesting person and that he would like to tell their story. Buchta said talking to people is usually the easiest part of the obituary-writing process, because people like to talk about loved ones and are often prepared to talk to reporters if the deceased was well know.

Buchta said the most challenging aspect of writing obituaries is giving readers a good sense of who the person was. He said that there is "so much more you can say" and that he usually has more material than he can use. I found this to be my challenge as well. Buchta said he decides what to include by thinking about what he would repeat to a friend or what "interesting tidbits" he remembers the next day from his research without referencing his notes.

Buchta hasn't encountered many obituary-writing ethical issues because he hasn't had to write many. However, he is familiar with the Star Tribune's policy that editors need to approve the omission of facts such as a controversial cause of death. He said reporters can't automatically abide by a family's request to exclude sensitive newsworthy material from the story. Similarly, if a reporter knows of significant criminal events, Buchta said that he or she needs to include the information, in a tactful way. He also pointed out that because people don't usually like to talk badly about a deceased person, minor negative details about his or her life usually don't surface.

Although obituaries are something the Star Tribune's reporters are required to write, Buchta said that he enjoys the assignment.

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This page contains a single entry by barch009 published on November 2, 2012 1:02 PM.

Obituary Analysis was the previous entry in this blog.

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