How to be a “bad quote” for an obituary (and four good questions you can ask regular people while reporting for an obit)

As we mentioned in earlier posts, an obituary is supposed to be a reverent, yet factually accurate, recounting of someone’s life. We don’t have to make a saint out of a sinner or whitewash away any negative elements of the person’s life, but we do want to lean toward being decent and respectful, regardless of our thoughts.

When veteran journalist and political commentator Cokie Roberts died of breast cancer this week at age 75, multiple politicians and journalists provided glowing tributes to her. Some might have seemed over the top, while others appeared balanced and fair. Here is how the two previous presidents approached their offers of condolence:

Former President Barack Obama said Roberts was a role model for women at a time the journalism profession was still dominated by men, and was a constant over 40 years of a shifting media landscape and changing world. “She will be missed, and we send our condolences to her family,” Mr. Obama said.

Former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, called Roberts a talented, tough and fair reporter. “We respected her drive and appreciated her humor,” the former president said. “She became a friend.”


Here’s the one President Donald Trump provided:

Flying from New Mexico to California on Air Force One Tuesday, President Trump told reporters Roberts “never treated me nicely” but that he respected her.

“I never met her,” Mr. Trump said. “She never treated me nicely, but I would like to wish her family well. She was a professional, and I respect professionals. I respect you guys a lot, you people a lot. She was a real professional. Never treated me well, but I certainly respect her as a professional.”

The degree to which you like or don’t like Donald Trump is irrelevant, as is how Roberts might or might not have treated him. (He never really clarifies how she wasn’t nice to him.) What matters is the context in which he is discussing her: She just died.

Had the president made a few mental editing trims before saying anything, this could have been a functional quote. Something like this would have worked:

“I never met her,” Mr. Trump said, “but I would like to wish her family well. She was a professional, and I respect professionals.”

Boom. Empathy, brevity and clarity while keeping the focus on the dead person.

I have been asked in numerous cases to offer quotes, memories and even eulogies on people I didn’t know that well or in some cases wasn’t that thrilled about (thankfully, that last part didn’t apply to any eulogies). In each case, I found something accurate and fair to say without essentially starting with, “Well, the weasel owed me five bucks and I bet I’m never gonna collect on that now…”

Although the president shouldn’t need this kind of hand-holding while dealing with the media, regular people who don’t deal with the media as much, or who don’t have a PR team to put out a statement, could use some help in coming up with good, honest quotes. Here are a few questions you can ask someone in an obituary interview that might improve the quotes you get:

  • “What are some of your favorite memories about (NAME)?” This one puts the source in the right frame of mind, focusing on memories of the person’s activities on Earth, as opposed to the person being dead. In addition, by noting “favorite” you provide the source with the ability to incorporate all sorts of things. Favorite memories might include those tearjerker moments where the person helped the homeless or dedicated himself or herself to a noble cause. They might also include the time he or she drove home backwards on the interstate because the transmission was screwed up and everyone in the car was out past curfew. (In one case, a favorite memory was of the deceased breaking up a hum-drum political meeting at someone’s house by climbing onto the table and dancing, while totally sober.)
  • “What words would you or other people use to describe (NAME)?” This again is more focused than just “What can you say about the person?” which leaves the source twisting in the wind and reaching for honorific terms and overwrought metaphors. It has a sharper angle to it and allows the person to pick at specific elements of the person much more clearly. Also, you set up an interesting opportunity for a moment of duality: The source might have known the deceased as kind, generous, decent and patient, but other people saw that person as rough, angry and difficult. It shows a layered look at the person through the eyes of people who knew him or her and demonstrates the idea that what everyone else saw might or might not have been on point.
  • “What kinds of things were important to (NAME)?” This helps you cast a stronger light on the individual in terms of life priorities. When people talked about coaching legend Vince Lombardi, they often recalled his famous speech about the only three things that mattered in life were God, your family and the Green Bay Packers. Everything else, he told his players, was a distraction. (David Maraniss, who wrote a biography on Lombardi, once noted that for the coach it was actually like God and The Packers as number one, then golf and then family somewhere down the road. For what it’s worth…)
  • “What would be the one thing you would want everyone to know about (NAME)?” This gives you the chance to help the person come up with a summary of the individual in a way that will also help you encapsulate who that person was. If you hear the same thing from multiple sources, you essentially have the core of your lead, if not your story, right there.


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