When attending college, the big joke on the student newspaper was the potential death of Pope John Paul II. (All due respect given to him.) We followed every twist and turn of his health; wrote, rewrote and tweaked a standard obit that we could toss up on the website the moment the news was confirmed. At the time I honestly thought it was a little over the top.
But yesterday the world witnessed the death of two American icons - Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. To watch the news of these two deaths unfold throughout the day proved to be an interesting journalism experiences. Fawcett had been struggling with anal cancer form months. Her death was expected an newspapers therefore had prewritten obits ready for the inevitable moment. Within minutes of the announcement of her passing, newspapers across the country had a story of her life running as the top news piece.
Then later in the day Michael Jackson went into cardiac arrest and journalist everywhere paniced. Michael Jackson? He wasn't struggling with a terminal illness. He hadn't even been in the hospital much lately. When the ultimate announcement came that Jackson had infact passed away there was, I'm sure, in every newspaper and magazine office around the world a mad scramble to put a story together. As soon as I heard the news I checked the NY Times expecting to see an obit like Fawcett's but instead the article running compiled statements about his death from a number of celebrities. Interesting to read but a fail in terms of what readers really wanted at that moment.
This just goes to show it's no longer ok to have a set of stock obits for the older or sickly people of interest. Sure every newspaper probably has a story saved on Patrick Swayze but what about Paula Abdul or George W. Bush? As we learn every day from life, it's not just the old and sickly who pass from this world. Heath Ledger is proof enough death doesn't have an age minimum.
Newspapers would be smart to have a stock of obits ready for every person of 'celebrity' status. The articles can then be tweaked from year to year or when something significant happens in the person's life. Now that we don't have time to craft an article for the next morning's paper we need to be responsible journalists and pre-write these pieces to be on top of our game.