George H.W. Bush deserved better leads for his obituary (Plus tips to help you write one of these things well)

Obituaries are tough pieces to write for a number of reasons:

  1. The event that necessitates an obituary (someone dying) rarely happens at a predetermined or convenient moment.
  2. Sources are often grieving or in some other way impaired, leading to difficulty in getting accurate or quality information from them.
  3. It might be the first time a person is put in the public eye via your media outlet and it will likely be the last. Thus, accuracy becomes even more of a paramount interest than it is in every other piece you do.
  4. When you are writing on a famous person and everyone is watching, if you screw up, you’re going to take that mistake with  you to your own grave.

On the other hand, the lead for an obituary should be pretty simple because it’s hard to miss the point: Somebody died.

Noun-verb. Throw in a few accomplishments. Get the “when” right. Keep it to the 25-35 word range. Don’t include a fact error. Easy peasy, lemon-squeezy.

Which is why it was baffling to see how so many publications swinging wildly and missing like crazy when it came to reporting the death of George H.W. Bush this weekend.

If you want to see what happens when you pack too much random stuff into a lead and forget the point, take a look at the Washington Post’s attempt: 

George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States and the father of the 43rd, was a steadfast force on the international stage for decades, from his stint as an envoy to Beijing to his eight years as vice president and his one term as commander in chief from 1989 to 1993.

This lead is meandering 51 words, and yet did you notice that something is missing? Yeah… the fact he died. Also his age. You’ll need to read down to the THIRD paragraph for those tidbits.


Not to be outdone in trying too hard, here’s the NY Times take on the death of 41:

George Bush, the 41st president of the United States and the father of the 43rd, who steered the nation through a tumultuous period in world affairs but was denied a second term after support for his presidency collapsed under the weight of an economic downturn and his seeming inattention to domestic affairs, died on Friday night at his home in Houston. He was 94.

I tell my students to read their leads out loud and if they run out of air before the end, their lead sentences are probably too long. This one is a lung-busting 63 words, or almost double the maximum for decent leads and had the run-on sentence feel of an over-sugared 4-year-old telling someone about a day at an amusement park.

The bigger issue is that including everything possible about this guy, they failed to help people focus on a specific thing or two that really mattered.

USA Today went with the two-sentence lead:

HOUSTON — George Herbert Walker Bush, the president who managed the end of the Cold War and forged a global coalition to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait, has died at age 94. In a political career that spanned three decades, he lost his bid for re-election and lived to see his son win the Oval Office.

Not bad in terms of the key elements of who he was and what he did that mattered, but this could have easily been trimmed down to make for one good sentence.


Bush’s “hometown paper” decided to go with the “mega-link” approach:

George Herbert Walker Bush, whose lone term as the 41st president of the United States ushered in the final days of the Cold War and perpetuated a family political dynasty that influenced American politics at both the national and state levels for decades, died Friday evening in Houston. He was 94.

I’m a huge fan of hyperlinking, but when about 80 percent of your lead is a link, why should I bother to read your story here? Chance are, the most important stuff in your lead is covered in that other piece.


Not sure what to make of The Telegraph’s detail-oriented approach, but it is distinctive:

George HW Bush died surrounded by family and friends after a last meal of soft boiled eggs, yoghurt and fruit juice as Ronan Tynan, the Irish tenor, sang Silent Night at his bedside, it has emerged.

The phrase “last meal” makes it sound like he was being executed or that the meal itself did him in. Also, “it has emerged” has both a creepy and odd sense to it. Not sure why…

The best of the bunch came from CBS, who properly prized brevity and clarity. Here’s the CBS website’s lead:

George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the United States, whose long life in the public sphere was defined by service to his country, has died. He was 94.

Of all the leads I could find, this one nailed the guts of the story perfectly without overdoing it with details. The guy lived for 94 years, held some of the most influential positions in the country and took part in some of the most important events of the century. We’re not going to cover all of them in the lead, so give me a solid focus and move me on. Good call.

When it comes to writing leads for obituaries, think about a few basic things:

  1. Focus on the noun-verb elements (person died) and then build outward with the “where” and “when.” Start there so you don’t forget it.
  2. “Why” should reflect why this person mattered. Most important people who receive news-style obituaries will have some claim to fame, so focus on that. If you find that there is too much “fame” to handle all the key famous incidents, look for a common theme among the fame, as the CBS lead did (lifetime of public service covers his military service, his various posts in various aspects of government and his later life work with Bill Clinton on Haiti and other similar projects).
  3. “How” is important to some extent, depending on the cause of death and the degree to which it was a logical progression of life. When you have a 94-year-old man with a degenerative disease, a quick mention in the lead works if you feel the need or you can push it down deeper into the story and not lose anything. If a 21-year-old star athlete dies in the prime of his life, the “how” will likely become the central focus of the piece.
  4. Tell me a story. The best obituaries are the ones where you learn something about someone that makes you wish you had known that person during his or her life. That’s where the lead comes in. If you can focus that clearly on that “gee, I’m glad I know that” element in the lead, you’ll have a great story that grows from it.

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