New York Times Explains Why Most Obituaries Are Still of White Men

The Times obituaries editor describes how obit subjects are chosen.

About 155,000 people die between each day’s print version of The New York Times and the next. On average, they publish obituaries on about three of them. William McDonald has been The Times obituaries editor for the last decade, so he has spent endless hours with colleagues selecting those few people. He writes that they start with a paper-thin fraction of the total — the deaths the team happens to hear about, usually by email or from a wire service or other outlet — and then get choosy. McDonald says that they focus on people who made a difference on a large stage because they will command the broadest interest. “If you made news in life, chances are your death is news, too,” McDonald writes. He says they make no judgments “moral or otherwise” about human worth, but they do try to judge newsworthiness. Fame, accomplishment, wide impact, those all hold weight in the obituary world.

McDonald says a lot of readers ask why most obituaries are of white men, and he said that the answer lies in our “not-so-distant history.” Since, unlike the rest of the newsroom, the obituaries desk covers the past, not the present, their pages mirror the world of 1975 or 1965 or 1955, not 2018. So they are a generation or three behind in tracking the evolution of gender and racial dynamics, among other things. The prominent shapes of society back then, those who held — and did let go of power — were “disproportionately white and male, be they former United States senators or business titans or Hollywood directors.” So The Times started “Overlooked,” a new collection of obituaries for women and others who never got them, in order to acknowledge many worthy subjects who were skipped for generations.

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