Lindsay Lohan and the risks of 'pre-written' obituaries
The hedonistic lifestyle of the repeatedly rehabbed Lindsay Lohan has so frightened her friends and family, TMZ recently claimed, that they're fearing for her life. Major news outlets have apparently reached the same conclusion, reports Rob Shuter, of AOL's Pop Eater — and prepared pre-written obituaries for the 23-year-old Mean Girls star. ("We all scrambled when Brittany Murphy and Heath Ledger died and don't want that to happen again," a senior producer told Shuter anonymously.) The celebrity blogosphere has promptly erupted: "How fricking jaded do you have to be to pre-write the obituary of a 23-year old?" asks CelebritySmackBlog.com. Not very, as it turns out. Here, a quick guide to the controversial practice of "pre-writing" celebrity obituaries:
How often do news organizations write obituaries prior to someone's death?
All the time. Newspapers and other news outlets often keep hundreds of prepared obituaries on hand, but the number ranges greatly from publication to publication. The Washington Post, for instance, reportedly has about 100 obituaries of major figures on file, whereas the Associated Press news wire has close to 1000.
Why prepare a pre-written obituary?
To assure quality and timeliness: No news outlet wants to be beaten to the punch by rivals, or have to throw together a hasty obit if a public figure dies suddenly.
How do they choose which obituaries to write?
It depends. But "the rule of thumb," Los Angeles Times managing editor Jon Thurber tells Editor & Publisher, "is the impact [the person's] had," plus other factors including age, health situation, and any illness "rumors."
Is the policy different for younger people?
Writing obituaries for young celebrities is "a complex issue, a complex debate," said Washington Post obituary writer Adam Bernstein in an interview with the Associated Press. "It's [often] unclear to what degree somebody really is on the edge." When crafting such an obit, "you're wondering whether it will run now or 70 years from now?"
Is it common to prepare pre-written obituaries for young stars?
No, but the accelerated news cycle of online media has generally increased the pressure on news outlets to be prepared. In 2008, news that media outlets had prepared obits for singer Britney Spears provoked an uproar similar to the Lohan reaction.
Do news organizations release the names of stars for which they've pre-written obits?
Not often. While rumors of prepared obituaries sometimes surface—as with Lohan—publications often keep their pre-written list a secret to avoid interference. "There are people in this world with big enough egos," The New York Times associate managing editor Charles Strum tells E&P, "that they would try to influence what is written about them after their death."
Have any of these pre-written obits been published accidentally?
Many times. Kurt Cobain was eulogized before his death, and Alice Cooper has also had his obituary published accidentally. The most egregious mix-up occurred in 2003, when CNN.com published the draft obituaries for seven world figures, including Fidel Castro, Bob Hope and Dick Cheney.