I interviewed Pamela Miller, the assistant metro night editor at the Star Tribune, to ask her about the process of writing obituaries. When I called, she was just working on the obituary of Robert Anderson that I used for my analysis post.
At the Star Tribune, Miller explained that there is no longer a regular obituary writer and that the obituaries rotate through the reporters. Miller said that the average obituary is written around a week after the person's death and the reporter on average gets 2-3 hours to write it. When the paper had a regular obituary writer, she said that obituaries were often written the day after the person's death.
"The hardest part is taking a person's life and condensing it to 16 to 18 inches," Miller said. She explained that you have so much information to consider and that it can be difficult to find what to focus on. The most important thing to consider, however, when writing an obituary is "how does this person's personal life parallel the period that they lived in?" Miller said. She discussed how it is important to see how their life reflects the broader history and to look for someone's character and not just accomplishments.
While obituaries generally take a positive tone and focus on the person's accomplishments, Miller said some events, such as the person being in jail, are still important to the story. Even if a family member asks her to exclude that part, she said that she tells the family member that they put in what is most newsworthy. Therefore, if the event is relevant and is an important aspect of the person's life, she said she would put it in.
Another decision the Star Tribune makes is whether or not to mention the cause of death when it is a suicide. Miller said this spurs a big discussion but that in most cases, the suicide is mentioned. One reason she said that she would exclude it is if the story is likely to create copycat suicides. In most cases, Miller said that the suicide is mentioned but the reporter treats it carefully and moves on to the person's accomplishments.
Miller also said that to avoid fact errors, reporters should always talk to somebody who has worked with the person in their profession so you can verify what they did in their business life. She mentioned one obituary where she had just talked to the family, who told her that the person had created the idea for the Hamm's Beer Bear advertisement. She received a call later, however, that corrected her and told her that the person had been exaggerating this to his family for years and that in reality, multiple people created the idea. Therefore, she said it was vital to talk to at least one family member and one professional colleague in an obituary.