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How About A Little Respect?

September 20, 2009

One of the first things we learned in journalism school was how to write about death. It’s a tricky subject. Most of the time, reporters are not writing for the people in their stories. They’re writing for readers. Every print reporter has had this question from a source:

“Can I read that over before it runs?”

And the answer is always no. See, if you give your sources say over what goes in the paper, you’re opening a dangerous door. One of the best arguments made in favour of reading my stories before they ran came from a major-label publicity person, representing a very, very major rock star, who told me she could lose her job if the wrong information got out, and she just wanted to confirm some details. I still said no, and I told her why: If I were to let her check the story, we would have to let everyone, and that would mean elected officials and other people over whom newspapers maintain a watchdog role. We can’t protect taxpayers’ interests if the mayor has final say over what is written about him.

But when it comes to writing about death, we know what we write is going to be saved, studied and read by people in a state of grief, so a different kind of sensibility comes into play. I know a reporter who recently wrote a compelling obit on a local person, checking and re-checking every fact and putting her all into it, only to have the desk make minor changes that ended up being major mistakes. That clipping will be a part of the deceased’s legacy for generations to come, and it has errors in it.

Which brings me to that rule I mentioned early on: never refer to bodies as people. “The body of Mr. Jones was taken to hospital” is the way we write it. This is a strange one, and I had trouble with it, but it was explained to me by a great teacher: Implying that a dead person is in any way participating in what is going on is an insult to their memory.

Of course, most of the dead people I wrote about were crime or accident victims, but the same attitude applies. These people had families and loved ones, and their feelings matter.

I just read this headline: Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan returns home. I’ve been seeing a lot more of those, especially in the wake of major Canadian newspaper chains’ decision to move away from the standardized Canadian Press style. Yes, anyone reading that would know the dead soldier didn’t get up and come home. But if there’s even a subtle chance of that misinterpretation, it should be addressed.

Granted, that headline came from a radio station website. But that’s the problem. Written news is moving away from newspapers and onto TV and radio websites (and vice-versa, as newspapers adopt video and podcasts). The old rules of style, grammar and spelling are being abandoned, and the invasion of textspeak and netLOLwhateverspeak are further tainting the language. I’m not against this. Language evolves, as I’ve said before, and so does style. But editors should take a moment, once in a while, and think about who will be reading what they write.

The cynicism that often accompanies stories about public figures should be locked in a drawer when it comes to stories about death. And that old rule about how we write about dead people shouldn’t be ignored. Particularly when writing about our soldiers.

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