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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Is it OK to turn an obit into a life story?

By Tom Warhover
October 1, 2010 | 2:06 p.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

Does the Missourian’s approach to obituaries unfairly invade families’ privacy?

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Tony Curtis died this week. The actor received full notice for a life lived in public. Newspapers like The New York Times devoted hundreds of words to his passing.

Illa Mae Turner died Sept. 20*. She didn't star in a single bit of Hollywood film. But she had an impact on the people who knew and loved her.

"I would call my mom the smallest, strongest woman I knew,” a daughter, Linda Eagle, told reporter Jessica Krampe. “She was tough as nails, (but) she was as gentle as she was strong."

Her daughter described Turner as someone who loved flowers and family, and who never missed a birthday: “She wrote the book on unconditional love.”

For decades, the Missourian has approached obituaries in a way that's different from most newspapers. Its editors have believed that every passing is newsworthy, and every person has a story to tell.

You can find the basic facts of a person's life in almost every newspaper. (That is, if the family pays for the privilege, as many newspapers now charge for obituaries.)

At the Missourian, you can find something more.

These Life Stories look for those things that make a person special to someone else. They are small celebrations.

They are un-journalistic, perhaps, in that they make little attempt to uncover any dark passages. They are very much about journalism, though, in terms of describing the human experience. In capturing that bright piece of one person, I believe we illuminate a part of what’s possible in all of us.

Reporters call family members to do these stories.

Many are grateful to share their memories of a mom or a child, an aunt or a nephew.

Some are offended that a reporter would intrude at such a time.

Editors instruct reporters not to push if someone declines to speak. (For comparison, if the mayor declines to comment about a matter of public policy, a good reporter will keep asking.)

Sometimes, a family will designate a spokesperson in advance.

I discussed the approach this week with a manager of a local funeral home. He hears many more complaints than praise, whereas I tend to hear the opposite. We’re both afflicted, I suspect, with selective memory on anecdotal evidence.

The discussion, by the way, began over something that had never happened in either of our professional memories: A mother was informed of a death by a Missourian reporter.  No one wants that. Normally, family members know well in advance of the newspaper receiving the obituary information.

The call prompted the larger conversation, during which I used the worst argument of all. I don’t allow students or staff to invoke the “we’ve-always-done-it-this-way” explanation, and yet I found those words tumbling out of my mouth.

I still believe in the value of the Missourian’s Life Stories. I also believe it’s time to evaluate the approach again.

That’s why next week I’ll gather the professional editors for a conversation. And that’s why I’m writing to you.

Tom