n Thursday, Nov. 12, the obituary section of The New York Times gave prominent space to Tom Metzger, a neo-Nazi and the founder of the California Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Above the 1,000 word obituary, Metzger was presented in a black and white photo from 1980, sitting behind a desk, quietly examining paperwork. It was an image so unremarkable it took me a full minute to notice the shotgun propped up on the California flag behind him.
The very next day, The Guardian granted serial killer Peter Sutcliffe—who mutilated and murdered at least 13 women and girls (police suspect the number is higher)—a lengthy obituary. At 1,150 words, it was accompanied by a large black and white photo of Sutcliffe wearing a suit. (This photo choice at least had the decency to involve the back of a police van.)
There's no doubt that the deaths of both of these men warranted news reports. And outlets like Sky News (which presented Sutcliffe's death through a lens that focused on his victims first) and AP (which took the time to name Mulugeta Seraw, the Black man whose murder Metzger was found legally liable for) have proven such reports can give dignity to the victims of both.
By contrast, the format of the newspaper obituary focuses on the individual who has died. It's that format that permitted The New York Times to wait 20 paragraphs before mentioning Seraw by name. And it's why The Guardian named only two of Sutcliffe's victims after three full paragraphs about his schooling, family background and love life.
he New York Times has repeatedly gone out of its way to present its obituaries section as hallowed, noble ground. Two years ago, it created "Overlooked," a space in which the newspaper retroactively writes obituaries for significant figures that were deemed unworthy at the time of their deaths. "Since 1851," the "Overlooked" homepage declares, "obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men. Now, we’re adding the stories of other remarkable people."