The internet isn’t the only reason that newspapers are struggling financially. Dull reporting is another. There has to be a middle ground between the fake interviews of turn-of-the-century yellow journalism and today’s often sterile and incomplete reports. Not even the obituaries are interesting anymore, at least for those of us who want to know why or how someone died.
The change in obituary reporting can be laid directly at the door of the AIDS epidemic. Yours truly can proudly proclaim a week-long stint as an obituary reporter when it was still necessary to ask the family—in a sympathetic yet insistent tone difficult for a nervous journalist student to master—”And what was your husband’s cause of death, ma’am?” In those days if someone had died of Kaposi’s sarcoma, cerebral toxoplasmosis, cytomegalovirus or some other opportunistic disease—or the cause of death was simply omitted—readers would begin speculating on how the deceased acquired HIV. When they were pillars of the community or married, their relatives felt particularly intruded upon.
Today morbid readers like me have to extrapolate from the family’s favored foundation. For example when reading “In lieu of flowers, the family welcomes donations to MADD,” most of us would guess a car accident with alcohol involved. The American Cancer Society is obviously code for one of the 200 different kinds of cancer. This method is unreliable at best. Only people who die ahead of their time through no fault of their own have relatives who plug a foundation. Old people? Forget it. People who suffer death by aneurism or autoerotic asphyxiation? Forget that, too. We can’t even know when obits are purposely misleading: e.g., a couch potato may have a jokester in the family who urges mourners to donate to the Waterfall Rappelling Club.
Some members of society would argue readers shouldn’t be riveted by others’ misfortunes, and these paragons spend a lot of energy lecturing reporters on what they should report and how they should report it. Case in point is L.V. Anderson’s recent criticism in Slate magazine of an AP news article about a 35-year-old woman who was sitting on her 17th-story balcony railing, enjoying a late-night cigarette when the railing suddenly broke, and she plunged to her death. Her fall was witnessed by a man who had brought her home after their first date and had just cautioned her against sitting there.
Anderson purports to be unhappy with the AP version of events because of its sexist slant, which she says leads readers to conclude: “…this smoking slut totally had it coming. A reader is left with the distinct impression that if Rosoff hadn’t invited her date inside, hadn’t gone outside to smoke a cigarette, and hadn’t defied the advice of the wise and logical man she was with, she would still be alive. According to the AP story’s subtext, the problem wasn’t that Rosoff’s balcony railing was shoddy and unsafe—it was that Rosoff defied gender norms by being unmarried at 35, by being sexually liberal, and by insisting on making her own decisions instead of deferring to men’s logic.”
Let me briefly deal with Anderson’s critique of the lead: the slut had it coming. Did I read the wrong story? Was the woman servicing the local soccer team when the railing gave way? Because Americans don’t condemn a woman as a slut for trying to find a love connection at age 35. Nor would Americans outside of California condemn her for smoking on the balcony. No. The sympathetic (or empathetic) reader sees a modern woman doing her best to survive in a hard, cold world only to be given one last cosmic slap.
Anderson ably rewrites the lead into the more professional, “just the bland facts, ma’am,” style that fills newspapers but leaves readers cold:
The Great American Daily