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I see dead people . . .

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by SoSueMe, Oct 30, 2006.

  1. SoSueMe

    SoSueMe Active Member

    . . . actually, I talk to their relatives.

    Seems I'm the resident sports obit writer. In a little more than a year on the new job I've interviewed the friends and family of every sports figure who has died in this city this year. And seriously, there's been quite a few.

    My thing is, I'm still not great at dealing with this. Any tips?

    I mean, out of habit someone gets on the phone and I say "Hi (insert name), how are you tonight?"

    I mean Christ, how do I think he's going to be? His dad just died yesterday.

    Anyway, just wondering how to deal with this.

    My other thing is this: "Hi so-and-so, I'm not sure if you heard but Mr. X died today."

    Is that the best way to open with a former player, coach or otherwise of the deceased when looking for reaction?
  2. No sense in making small talk. Just identify yourself. "Hi [name]. My name is FireJimTressel.com, and I'm a sports reporter for the Podunk Daily News. We are hoping to write a story about [deceased person's name]."
  3. BYH

    BYH Active Member

    Weird, I was thinking tonight, while reading the Auerbach obit in the paper, about how weird it is to call people and ask them for comment on someone who literally just died.

    I was fortunate (or unfortunate, I guess) in that the obits I had to write during my daily days were about well-known people who invariably knew one or more of my good sources. So that cut out a lot of the awkwardness. "Hey Joe, it's BYH. Sorry to call you at dinner and to be the bearer of bad news, but Coach X died this afternoon. Do you have a moment to talk about your memories of him?"

    Unfortunately, these deaths never came as a surprise either, so that also made things less difficult on both ends.

    When I was in college, a member of the wrestling team accidentally shot and killed himself during winter break. So several weeks passed before I had to talk to his dad and his best friend. By that point, the shock had worn off and they really wanted to talk about their son/friend.
  4. Pencil Dick

    Pencil Dick Member

    News side at our place does one of these "Life Stories" daily. It's one of the most read features in our paper. From what the folks that have to write them have told me, about 99 percent of the people they contact to talk about the deceased are very helpful and willing to talk and/or provide a photograph.

    Hey, it's better than a paid obituary. And certainly written and edited better.
  5. leo1

    leo1 Active Member

    i wrote some obits when i was still a sports writer. after some intial awkwardness i always had great conversations and they wre the easiest interviews i ever did. not only that, but i've talked to people who would never have taken my call if i wasn't calling to get quotes for an obit. i'm talking about hall of famers who either took my call immediately or returned my call like five minutes after i called a PR guy. people love to share memories about the dead although it's obviously tougher to get them to talk much about the controversial stuff.

    make it like a conversation: 'i know this is a rough day but i was wondering if you could share some thoughts on gary graveyard. i'm new to podunkville but i've heard he was an incredible player, great human being, etc.... and what are your favorite memories of gary? what should people know about gary's life?'
  6. SixToe

    SixToe Active Member

    Pencil, shouldn't they be called "Death Stories?"
  7. Bob Cook

    Bob Cook Active Member

    I remember dealing with this problem early in my career. I was at UPI in Indianapolis, and started the job working 10 straight days over the holidays, during which there was an incredible amount of death and destruction, including a family of seven in northern Indiana killed on their way back from Christmas shopping. The national desk wanted me to call what little family was left was a heartrending story on a family hit by tragedy over the holidays, and I hated myself for making the call. I felt thankful that the grandfather who answered the phone hung up on me as soon as I identified myself.

    However, from that I got a great piece of advice from the editor of the bureau on calling the relatives of deceased. She said to be professional, but also to be appropriately sympathetic. The best way, she said, was to present this as an opportunity to tell stories about the deceased, rather than concentrate on the "how-do-you-feel" angle. No doubt, people are ripped, but what do we all do at funerals and memorial services? Tell funny and uplifting stories about the deceased. It's our way of coping and remembering, and from doing that with your sources, you should get some interesting stuff.

    Also, I would recommend bringing in any research you've done on the athlete -- greatest games, career highlights, etc. -- and bring them up. Did the athlete tell the family a lot of stories? How many of these events did the family witness? Was the athlete's personality the same on the field as off? If done right, you can get people to spill for longer than you might want, and get plenty of interesting stories.
  8. When I call relatives on the phone, I ask them if they could help us honor and memorialize the deceased by talking to me for a few minutes for an article for tomorrow's paper. Gets them to open up every time.
  9. Ace

    Ace Well-Known Member

    Maybe you could say, Hi this is SoSueMe. I'm sorry for your loss.

    Seems to work in all the doctor/cop shows.
  10. sartrean

    sartrean Member

    Yeah, I really hate having to do this, or sometimes, I've written stories about dumbass kids drunk off their asses, driving down the road until that tree gets in their way and Johnny Passinghappy, star QB at Podunk, ruined his shot at D-1 and is paralyzed from the neck down. Even having to call the kid's parents at the hospital and shit freaking sucks. That's the day when that's the only freaking story I write (usually I churn out like 5-6 per day), and when I'm done I go home and don't do anything but pound cool Coors 16-ouncers until I'm passed out.

    I also refused to make any other calls on those type days and I let voice mail get any calls that I do get from mommies and daddies telling me that their kid's name is mispelled on Hometown High's roster. And my coworkers have known through the years not to say a freaking word to me about anything on these type days.

    I think it's worse if an athlete has screwed themselves outta their chosen career or god-given talent. But even when kid goes hunting and gets shot to death by people in his own hunting party and can never lead Podunk to the state title game in curling, and I have to call the kid's parents. That freaking sucks.

    One year, a good kid was on his way to school on freaking opening day of the baseball season. He was only the star senior pitcher, highly recruited, and a straight-A student, student body VP, on the local Teenagers With A Cause Do-Gooder's board of directors, and the freaking kid gets run over with a couple of his classmates on the way to school by a dump truck. It was a dangerous left turn he was making, a blind one, one that he made every day for three years up to that point. And on this day, at that turn, where others died before and after him, he gets run over.

    So, I got to write the newsy with a sidebar on how Hometown High's opener getting cancelled, the next day got to write the obit, and that whole week just plain sucked.

    And I totally agree with the moms and dads and other kinfolk I contact in these situations, I agree when they tell me, "Goddamn, my [kid, dad, coach, daughter, niece, stepson, cousin, brother, sister] just freaking died, and you want to me to comment on a story you're writing. What kind of sick bastard are you?" Click.

    One year, a baseball coach died in the freaking dugout during a game. I wasn't there, and that made it tougher. Only reason I found out was a rival coach was there scouting the game and he called me to tell me about it, so I had to leave the game I was at, track down some numbers and figure out what the fuck was going on. That sucked too.

    To be fair, I've reached some relatives of the recently deceased who were very nice to me. It's about 50-50. I always start off, like others said, that I'm Joe Sick Bastard, a reporter for Podunk News, and I'd like to ask you a few question about your relative for a story I'm working on....very to-the-point, no small talk, other than maybe, sorry to bother you...but...

    And I close, always, with "and I'm truly regretful that I have to bother you at such a difficult time, and I'm very sorry for your loss."
  11. Del_B_Vista

    Del_B_Vista Active Member

    We do these at our paper, too. (In fact, today's my day in the rotation.) If you ever really have a problem, you can usually get somebody at the funeral home to point you in the direction of a family member that's dealing with the situation the best. Once you tell them you want to write a story about their life and what kind of person they were, it's usually difficult getting off the phone with them. I've had folks e-mail me the next day saying they'd wished they'd remembered some anecdote or another on the phone, but every piece of feedback I've gotten has been positive. People like the idea of others reading about their kin in that way.
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