At one of my first newspaper jobs, a veteran reporter told me that there were only two reasons we EVER would stop the presses: If we printed the wrong lottery numbers or if we got someone’s obituary wrong. You libeled the pope? We’ll figure that out later, but if you screwed up an obit, stuff would come to a screeching halt in the press room.
I never found out if that was meant to scare me, as I was a new reporter who would mostly be doing the lottery numbers and obituaries or if it was a true story. However, the idea that obituaries mattered stuck with me. It continued with me at my first editing gig in Columbia, Missouri. My boss had a rule that EVERYONE who died in our area would get a full staff-written obituary, free of charge.
George Kennedy saw the Missourian as the paper of record and recording the life stories of people in our circulation area was sacred to him. We always would tell the reporters, “Do the math” when it came to the age of the deceased. We firmly stated, “Check again” on any outlandish claims regarding war medals or honorary degrees we couldn’t verify. “Are you sure?” was our mantra when it came to these stories.
While I was at a wedding last night, I found out actor John Heard, who was best known for his role in the “Home Alone” movies, died in Palo Alto, California. I did a quick search through my news feed and found that most of my main sources had done obituaries and most listed him at age 71:
However, one source listed him at 72. It was an outlier among a sea of “venerable” publications, and it had me thinking about how easy it is to screw up an age in an obit. A check of years instead of birthdays, an unfortunate accident near or on a date of birth or just a general “whoops” will do it. However, I dug more and found additional notices that supported the “Heard is 72” age issue:
A quick check of his IMDB page gave me this:
The math was easy (March birthday) and his birthday is listed, so where were the BBC and NY Times getting the idea that this guy wasn’t 72? I couldn’t find a birth record, a formal form from the coroner’s office or anything else. CNN finally put something together that was helpful in one of its stories:
(CNN)Actor John Heard, best known for playing the father in the “Home Alone” movies, has died, the Santa Clara County, California, medical examiner’s office said.
The medical examiner’s office said the actor was 71, but other reports list his age as 72. He died Friday.
It’s unclear where the coroner got the information from. Let’s just hope it wasn’t the most popular source out there prior to Heard’s death that listed his date of birth in a way that would have put him at 71:
I can’t say for sure that the medical examiner (or even the NY Times) went to Wikipedia like somebody’s stoner roommate trying to pull together a last-minute Sociology paper. The Times, BBC and other people didn’t cite their sources. At least CNN, while not giving us a definitive answer, gave us clarity with an attribution. What I can say is that it’s impossible for him to be both 71 and 72 at the same time.
With all of that in mind, here are three key take aways from this:
- If your mother says she loves you, go check it out. Make sure you have a solid source to demonstrate from whence your information came. Also attribute that information so people can go back and check for themselves. It shows faith in your readers and bolsters your credibility. If a reader looked at you and said, “Where did you get THAT from?” would you feel confident telling that person the answer?
- Trust, but verify. Just because the New York Times ran a story that said one thing and the Portage Daily Shopper contradicted it, don’t just assume the Times is right and the Shopper is wrong. Sources do count for something, but even a blind squirrel can find an acorn and even Goliath can get knocked on his ass.
- Treat obituaries with reverence. I used to tell my students that an obituary might be the first and last time someone was mentioned in the media. With that in mind, you need to bring your “A” game when you do the reporting and writing.