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The delicate art of writing an obituary

Photo: Special Arrangement  

Last week, following former Union Minister Arun Jaitley’s death, newspapers were filled with vignettes about him. Many journalists who were close to him shared their grief on social media, while others pointed out Jaitley’s shortcomings and critically analysed his tenure as Finance Minister. Heated debates broke out on the delicate art of writing an obituary. Fingers were pointed at reporters and editors who were considered to be part of Jaitley’s inner coterie for not being “objective” in their reactions.

The question of how close you keep a source, especially a senior minister, an opposition leader, a bureaucrat, or a police officer, is tricky. It’s fatal for a reporter to not have access to those in power. After all, we need their views, whether their comments are on or off the record. We need their perspective to understand events, remarks and policies.

The debate last week led me to the age-old dilemma on the relationship between a source and a reporter: How close is too close? The distance between a source and a reporter should be such that the source doesn’t hold sway over the reporter, while the reporter still gets information. Information is, after all, our lifeline.

For a reporter to call a source every morning is not an unusual practice. But what she does after the phone call — that is, how she processes and reports the information she has received — is what matters.

Sources expect a lot from reporters. A reporter is sometimes expected to brush under the carpet any scoop that could hurt their source and/ or their interests. Often a reporter is simply expected to write in a way that could help further the source’s agenda. Sometimes, reporters are expected to cover up the source’s mistakes and gaffes. A senior minister once told me, “You write in your own words, just make sure you embellish it well”. I refused to respond to the comment and walked out of his office.

Each of us reporters can recount endless instances of getting cornered in corridors by politicians complaining about their quotes being omitted in reports or not finding their names in the newspaper. We receive sarcastic text messages like, “Oh, I suppose your paper could not find space.” Recently, after a factual report on parliamentary proceedings was published, I was yelled at by a politician from down south. He went on to allege that I am reporting on behalf of his political rivals.

In return for this “disservice”, reporters are often threatened that information, our currency, will be denied to us. “Next time you call me asking for details, I will not pick up your call,” we are curtly told. So, reporters have to constantly walk a tightrope.

This brings me to the task of writing obituaries. In a 2013 piece on the dos and dont’s of writing an obituary, Nick Serpell, then Obituary Editor of BBC News, wrote that an obituary “should be true, balanced and fair in the context of that person’s life. It should neither be a eulogy or a character assassination”.

The question is this: How do you stay detached after a source’s death when you have known them all your life, seen them through their highs and lows, and perhaps shared your own ups and down with them? You have to err on the side of caution, I have been told. Separate your personal grief and professional duty.

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Printable version | Dec 4, 2021 1:55:39 PM |

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