Reporting and Covid-19: Tips for Journalists

Documenting Death: Obituaries in the time of Coronavirus

Tuesday April 14, 2020

Guest: Ari Goldman, Professor, Columbia Journalism School

The staggering number of deaths from Covid-19 around the world has journalists, especially local and regional reporters, covering death and dying in an acute and ongoing way. How do reporters meaningfully chronicle this scope of human loss as the pandemic also touches their personal lives?

An Obit is not a eulogy

An obit is not about death, but rather about life. How comprehensive should an obituary be? What is an obituary’s role? Goldman says this is not the time to produce a tribute. There’s a different time for memorials, and a difference in style. He says basic journalism tenets are especially important. Don’t tell us about a person’s life. Show the reader, viewer or listener how the person lived each day, what was important to them, who they loved and who loved them.

When does coverage about the particulars of a death scene become important? 

A collective event, where there are many deaths, makes reporting about a person’s specific life story even more critical, and in doing so there are multiple stories to consider: stories about nurses, doctors, orderlies, funeral home and morgue workers, first responders and law enforcement.

Talking with grieving families

Express condolences. Always. Ask questions about the person’s life. Timing is important. A reporter doesn’t want to put survivors in a position of repeating the betrayal, or heightening their grief. Using sensitivity and empathy go a long way. But being direct and not wavering from the reason you are talking to family and friends matters, too. Remember that obituaries are often a part of the grieving process. 

Make absolutely certain to verify everything. Nothing said by a family member should be treated as the gospel truth. Like in every other story, attribute and source the facts.