In 2020, Neo-Nazis and Serial Killers Have No Place in a Newspaper's Obituary Section

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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.

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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."

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In Vanessa Gould's 2016 documentary, Obit, the viewer is given a fly-on-the-wall look at the New York Times' obituary team in action. The staff is seen wrestling with fact-checking, deadlines and the task of figuring out whose lives to immortalize in their pages. The editorial staffers talk often in the film about who is "worthy" of their posthumous limelight, and approach the task with an unerring sense of respect.

"I really admire the people I write about generally," journalist Douglas Martin says at one point. "It becomes a little love affair in a sense and they're important to you. And I think you bring that feeling, that warmth that you develop over time to all these people."

Fellow writer Margalit Fox adds: "It's almost never depressing because we're almost always writing about someone... who has died after a long, rich, creative, fulfilling life."

The documentary does make clear that the New York Times' obituary subjects are not always chosen for being likable folks. "The one thing all the subjects have in common besides being dead," reporter William Grimes says, "is that their lives had an impact of one sort or another. The word 'impact' is infinitely elastic. That impact can be of world-shaking importance."

But there is a difference between writing an obituary for world leaders who committed heinous acts, and writing them for people who are unremarkable outside of their capacity to commit evil. Neither Sutcliffe nor Metzger were elected officials, or born into prominence, or people who achieved greatness. Neither would they inspire any moral philosophizing, like the "Would I have done it in the same circumstances?" discussion in Obit about the New York Times obituary for the brigadier general who dropped the first atomic bomb.

If anything, granting Sutcliffe and Metzger obituaries this lengthy, with photos, in prominent newspapers, gives them a legitimacy neither deserves. And while Sutcliffe is not the first serial killer to receive an obit in The Guardian—Myra Hindley and Ian Brady both got one (Brady's at least bothered to include the names of his victims)—the newspaper should have grown past the point of doing so by now.

Best practices in journalism are fluid and ever-changing. For example, after Anderson Cooper announced his decision to stop naming mass shooters for fear of inspiring more, an increasing number of journalists followed suit. If you apply Cooper's logic to print in 2020, at a time when America is visibly wrestling with racial justice issues, it's baffling to consider why the New York Times would grant a Klansman the column space it just did.

Does anyone actually care that the Yorkshire Ripper was also "a keen reader [and] showed an interest in ceramics," as reported in The Guardian? Do we gain anything from hearing that Metzger learned electronics in the army, as detailed in The Times? It's doubtful. In 2020, if a newspaper obituary section is having a quiet week, wouldn't it make more sense to honor some of the 1,500 British and American healthcare workers that have died on the COVID-19 frontlines?

"The editors are besieged by people who don't understand being a worthy person and a virtuous person does not make you a newsworthy person," NYT journalist William Grimes says in Obit. "Often they'll get a phone call from someone saying 'My uncle subscribed to the New York Times all his life and it was a religion for him. And it would just be so gratifying to the family if he could have an obituary.' I'll bet there's 10 or 15 calls like that every day."

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With the state of the world as it is, I for one would gladly read an obituary about a normal life well-lived over one about an evil doer. In the case of those who are newsworthy solely for deeds that have harmed others, a news report of their passing would surely suffice. Not only is the warmth and life detail inherent in obituary writing an ill fit for such people, it frequently is not something afforded to their victims.