I have some bad news to pass along this week: two people were killed as a result of sloppy journalism.

It happens more often than you might expect. It’s frequent enough, in fact, that I’ve come up with a name for this phenomenon: obiticide. Death by media error.

Newsday was one of the guilty parties, as evidenced by this correction:

In an article published yesterday about autism, some editions reported incorrectly that Vito “Billy” Albanese Jr. died at an out-of-state residential facility. Albanese is living in Brooklyn with his father.

British paper The Observer also published a correction to atone for shunting Ted Sorensen into an early grave:

Ted Sorensen, the author of Counselor, was unfortunately described as ‘the late’ in our Books pages last week; we are happy to report that John F Kennedy’s adviser and speechwriter is still very much with us. And Julia Blackburn, not Blackwell, wrote The Three of Us, published by Cape (Books, last week). Apologies.

Sorensen is something of a mistake magnet. Last year, The New York Times admitted that it had misspelled his name more than 135 times over the last fifty-plus years. If given the choice, though, Sorensen probably prefers having his name mangled to being knocked off. Still, he’s in good company. This Wikipedia page shows just how many famous people have been felled before their time by premature obituaries.

I dedicated an entire chapter of my book to obiticide (and you can read a chapter excerpt here), but that’s hardly put the issue to rest. Just this past year, newspapers have killed off Frank McCourt, Billy Graham (twice!), Muhammad Ali, Pat Robertson and Victor Willis of Village People fame. (Okay, it’s a bit of a stretch to include the last one.)

A lot of not-so-famous people were also victims. Heck, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution even killed a funeral director:

James Thrash, a funeral home owner, was incorrectly listed as deceased in the deaths/funerals list of Tuesday’s Metro section.

As a rule, errors made about an individual, be it a misspelled name or incorrect age, taint that person’s perception of the media outlet in question. They may never be in the paper again, but they’ll always remember what happened when they were. So what happens when they’re incorrectly labeled as being deceased? Most seem to take it surprisingly well. Last year, the Bangor Daily News published this report about an incorrect obit:

Anne E. Hathaway was somewhat shocked Friday when a friend called to see if she was still alive.

The Orono resident’s obituary had appeared in Friday’s Bangor Daily News. The information in the short obituary and the list of death notices was correct, except for the part about her being dead.

The deceased was actually Ann Hathaway of Bangor.

Both women had made advance funeral arrangements at the same funeral home. When pulling the file for the deceased Ann Hathaway, the funeral home employee didn’t realize there were two women with very similar names and grabbed the wrong one.

One interesting note about obituaries is that they are perhaps the one section of the paper where the business side exercises more due diligence than the editorial side. As evidenced above, a paid obit can only be placed in the paper if the death is confirmed by a funeral home or a member of the family. That’s not necessarily the case on the editorial side.

I know the extent of the business side’s due diligence because years ago I attempted to help a friend who made a habit of pranking the press place a fake obit in a Canadian paper. I transformed myself into one of the owners of the Silverman Funeral home, taking great care to effect a somber tone and speak barely above a whisper while on the phone. (Everyone knows you have to whisper around dead people.) Yes, I assured the paper, the man in question had passed away.

In the end, because there was no listing for my upstanding funeral business, the paper declined to place the obit for one Mr. Hamburgler, a man who, among other things, “lived life with relish.”

In the end, I was very impressed with the sales department’s standards. Wish I could say the same for the editorial side.

Correction of the Week

“AN ARTICLE in last week’s Sunday Age, “Born to be, um, mild — and possibly damp”, contained views about biker groups that were inserted in the editing process.

As well, the survey of motorcyclists who rode for about three hours every weekend found that many had problems emptying their bladders.

The story stated that bike riders could be “bedwetters”. The error was made during editing.” — The Age

A Really Meaningful Implication

In a story Nov. 27, The Associated Press reported that Planned Parenthood of Indiana was offering gift certificates for health screenings, including birth control. Indiana Health Commissioner Dr. Judy Monroe called them a “really meaningful gift” in difficult economic times. The story should have made clear she was commenting only on the certificates’ use for health screenings, rather than for birth control or abortion. — The Associated Press

Parting Shot

“Starla Kingsley, 21, of Owasso, Okla., who was featured in a photograph published in the Nov. 18 Business section, bought her wedding dress at Chatfields Boutique in Des Peres because she wanted a modest-style dress. She is not pregnant. While some customers go to the specialty store because it caters to brides who are pregnant, others, like Kingsley, are looking for different kinds of dresses and accessories, sometimes for specific religious ceremonies.” — Post-Dispatch