Abstract Obituaries, as posthumous appraisals of lives, have been

Obituaries, as posthumous appraisals of lives, have been fixtures in
English-language press for almost four hundred years since the London newsbooks
published the first obituary in the early seventeenth century (Starck, 2006). Nowadays,
the obituary pages become an important characteristic of any newspaper aspiring to be
a publication of record. “In the English-speaking world,” observed David Bowman,
the former editor-in-chief of the Sydney Morning Herald, “a newspaper of quality
hardly seems complete these days without a regular obituary page.” (cited in Starck,
2004). In these pages, the obituary seeks to inform, enlighten, entertain and
commemorate, and all in a tidy attractive package. Certainly it contains the most
creative writing in journalism (Johnson, 2006, pp. 10). And yet, the ways in which
obituaries are composed have not been closely studied. Hence, this paper attempts to
look at the discourse organization of newspaper obituaries. Thirty obituaries
published in the New York Times in June, 2009 constitute the sample of this study.
The analysis of the small corpus of NYT obits found that NYT obituaries, like
weight bearing walls, depend on certain structures to hold them together. Major
elements that comprise NYT obits include attribution, abstract, and the biography of
the departed. Although hard news story and NYT obits are two different types of
news genre, the two types share common elements such as attribution and abstract.
More tellingly, both genres are told in a cyclical fashion.
Key words: Genre, hard news story
1. Introduction
The obit page was once called the Siberia of journalism, the pasture where
failing hacks get banished before being consigned to even more distant pasture
(Conniff, in Smithsonian, 2003). Yet, since the mid-1880s, the “morgue” has gradually
developed into the coolest part of a newspaper, opening up windows of the world that
are often closed in journalism (Fergusson, in Wall Street Journal, 1996).
Indeed, the obituary has been a fixture in English-language press for almost
four hundred years since its first incarnation appeared in the London newspapers in
early seventeenth century (Starck, 2006). Nowadays, 94 percent of American dailies
publish obituaries for all area residents (Itule and Anderson, 1999, pp.164). A quality
press is hardly complete without a regular obituary page these days (Bowman, in
Starck, 2004). These obits, at its simple, are a source of human interest that offers “a
private reality larger than that of front-page stories, of wars and earthquakes,
economic booms and changes of government” (Fergusson, in Starck, 2004). At its best,
obits are a form of literature that is “anecdotal, discursive, yet elegantly concise;
learned, touching, and, in a kindly way, often extraordinarily funny” (The Economist,
1996). Certainly it contains the most creative writing in journalism (Johnson, 2006, pp.
10). And yet, the way in which obituaries are composed have not been closely studied.
Thus, the present paper seeks to explore how obituaries, as a genre, are constructed
and organized in systematic ways. What follows is an attempt to put down what
previous works on relevant genres had informed the present study, how the study is
conducted and what was found.
In specific, it begins with an overview of theoretical background and the
methodology of the study. Then, the results and findings of the study are presented.
Last, the paper concluded with the limitations of the study and suggestion for future
2. Theoretical background of the study
In explaining the knack for writing obituaries, Bill McDonald (2006), the current
obituary editor of the New York Times, has observed:
The best obit writers are natural storytellers, I think. They have to love making
people come alive, as it were, through the use of narrative tension, rich detail
and colorful anecdote. The obit page, after all, is a collection of stories, of
people's lives, some well known, some obscure”.
Storytelling, in other words, is part and parcel of obituary writing. The study of
how obituaries are composed, accordingly, is, in a sense, the study of how narratives
work. Indeed, narrative is present in a prodigious variety of genres, for people tend to
apprehend and tell the world narrativly. As the psychologist Jerome Bruner proposed,
it is a human propensity to organize events into memorable stories in order to make
sense of the world (cited in Durant and Lambrou, 2009, pp. 34). Genres that have
narrative elements include, for example, the lullabies parents sing to their children,
causal conversation in day-to-day lives, news stories journalists tell, and the story of
lives called obituaries (Berger, 1996, pp. 1). It is not surprising, therefore, that studies
of these genres have at their core how narratives work. These include, inter alia,
Labov and Waletzky’s personal experience narrative (1967, 1972); Rumelhart’s story
grammars (1975); Martin and Rothery’s (1986) research into children’s writing in the
school context; van Dijk’s news schemata (1988b); Bell’s model structure for news
texts (1991, 1998); and Plum’s work (1993) on types of spoken narratives. Among
these discourse theories, Labov and Waletzky’s framework had exerted such influence
that it has been widely acknowledged as the paradigm for story analysis. Thus, the
research review begins with a brief introduction of this model.
2.1 Labov and Waletzky’s (1967) personal experience narrative (PEN)
One influential framework for analyzing how narratives work was developed by
the sociolinguists Labov and Waletzky (1967). Initially aimed at the correlation
between linguistic variation and the social characteristics of narrators, Labov and
Waletzky asked their informants to recall danger of death and fight stories to elicit
unconscious and vernacular speech. The analysis of the function served by individual
clauses of the speech, however, revealed the common structure of personal story that
they had not anticipated. A fully formed personal narrative, they found, includes six
common elements and often roughly in the following order: abstract, orientation,
complicating action, evaluation, resolution and coda. As the table 1 showed, each
element has a particular function in relation to the narrative as a whole. In specific,
the abstract summarize the central action and the point of the narrative; the orientation
set the scenes by introducing the actors, time and location of the initial situation; the
complication covers the unfolding of the event that drive the story and lead up to the
climax; the evaluation establish the significance of the story and thus justify the
audience’s attention; the resolution tells what finally happened; the coda wrap up the
story and return the narrative to the present.
Labov and Waletzky’s work on oral narratives had showed that connected talk
is orderly and describable in terms of structure and function. Their work had exerted
such influence that many works on discourse analysis apply it in their studies of how
people produce and understand stories (e.g. Rumelhart’s story grammars, 1975;
Mandler and Johnson, 1977; Fillmore, 1982; and de Beaugrande, 1982); or use it as a
point of departure to study other narrative type genres (e.g. van Dijk’s news schemata
(1988b); Bell’s model structure for news texts, 1991; 1998). Of these two models for
news stories, Bell’s framework was drawn as the basis for the current study. An
illustration of his model, thus, is given in the following section.
Table 1. Labov and Waletzky’s (1967) narrative schema model
Schema or stage
Signals what the story is about
Provides the who, what, and where of the story
Complicating action
Provides what happened? The core narrative category
Establish the significance of the story and thus justify
audience’s attention
Provides the result of the events
Signals the end of the whole story, and return from the
time of the narrative to the present
2.2 Bell’s (1991) model structure for news text
As a journalist and sociolinguist, Bell recognized that the news journalist write
are, in essence, stories that have structures, viewpoints and directions. As such,
journalists are storytellers of our age. This is reflected in the snatches of phrases in
which newsroom business is conducted. A good journalist, for example, either “gets
good stories” or “knew a good story”. A critical news editor asks “Is this really a story?
Or “Where’s the story in this?” (Bell, 1991, pp. 147) However, instead of telling the
news story in the chronicle order such as “Once upon a time…”, the news story often
begins:”Fifteen people were injured today when a bus plunged…”. Based on the
general framework for story analysis (i.e. Labov and Waletzky’s personal narrative,
1967) as well as Van Dijk’s news schemata (1988b), Bell put forward the model
structure for news stories, specifying the categories required to describe news
As the figure 2 shows, a hard news story generally consists of an abstract,
attribution, and the story proper. In specific, the attribution specifies where the news
story came from. It is usually indicated by agency credit and/or journalist’s byline,
optionally plus place and time. The abstract is composed of the lead and a headline.
The lead is the opening paragraphs of a news story and the news in microcosm. Like
an hors d’ oeuvre to whet the readers’ appetite, the function of the lead is to tell the
reader what the story is about in a crisp and attractive way. Thus, the lead begins the
story from a newsworthy angle, with the remainder of the story also being view
through this angle. Normally this is achieved by answering the five W questions (i.e.
who, what, when, where, why and so what) in a nutshell. The headline, though
appeared to be the ultimate abstract of the news, is in fact a last-minute addition
written by subeditor to cut back the lead still further and thus a stand-alone unit.
The body of a news story is the story proper. A story is made up of one or more
episodes, which in turn consist of one or more events. The event contains major
components such as actors, action, setting attribution, as well as additional elements
like follow-up, commentary, and background. To recapitulate the events entails giving
contextualized information (i.e. actors, action, setting attribution) as well as
interpretation of the news (i.e. follow-up, commentary, and background).
Follow-up covers reaction or consequence in the wake of the main action of an
event. Commentary provides the journalist’s or news actors’ observations on the
action. It may be in the form of explicit evaluation or expectation of how the situation
could develop. It may present a context to compare the event with others. Background
covers events prior to the current action. These previous events are further categorized
into “history” and “previous episodes” by recency.
2.2.1 The difference between personal narrative and hard news story
After the comparison of hard news stories and personal narratives, Bell pointed
out that these two narrative type genres differ in three major aspects. First, unlike
personal narrative, a news story normally does not have elements such as resolution or
coda. This is because news is more like a serial ends in mid-air without clear-cut
results. Besides, if the news does have results, they are much more likely to be in the
lead rather than at the end of the story. Second, the function carried out by the abstract,
orientation, and evaluation in personal narratives tends to concentrated in the lead. As
a result, orientating and evaluative material tends to concentrate in the lead (Bell,
1991, pp. 154). Because the lead not only have to tell what the story is about but also
tell it in such a way that foregrounds its significance, and in turn warrants the readers’
attention. Third, the order in which news stories are told is at odds with that of
personal narratives. In specific, personal narrative is often told in chronicle order in
which events occurred. A hard news story, by contrast, is normally arranged in
descending order of importance. Thus, the news story moves backwards and forwards
in time, presenting the most important fact or climax of the story, then the second
most important information and so on. This structure of hard news story is variously
called Inverted pyramid, installment method (Van Dijk, 1988b, p43), orbital structure
(White, 1997). Though names differ, the notion at the core is the same: the
leadline/lead dominates the news story, providing its focus or angle, and the
subsequent satellites act to elaborate on, comment on or contextualize the various
trends of information in the opening (i.e. the lead) (pp. 68).
Episode 1
Event 1
Actors Action
Place Consequences
Event n
Episode n
Figure 2. Bell’s (1998) discourse structure for news texts
3. Methodology
The present study involves exploring the format of contemporary NYT
obituaries. To this end, an analysis of the discourse structure of the NYT obits is
carried out by using Bell’s (1991) model structure for new discourse. Thirty obituaries
drew from the daily are analyzed to uncover the general discourse pattern of
obituaries. The reason for employing Bell’s framework to analyze the structure of
NYT obits lies in the allegiance of American obituaries to classic news values. As
Slate, the Microsoft Corporation’s online magazine, pointed out, “the New York
Times and most American newspapers treat obituaries primarily as news stories.”
(cited in Starck, 2004). Therefore, the use of Bell’s framework for hard news stories
would help to bring out the distinctive feature of NYT obituaries as well as
substantiate the claims of NYT obituaries as a type of news stories in their own right.
3.1 Methodological issues in corpus construction
In the course of compiling the corpus, the influence of the research question
permeates nearly every phase of the process (McEnery, et al., 2006, pp. 72). To start
with, the choice between off-the-peg corpus and bespoke corpus depends mostly upon
the research question one intends to address and partly upon the availability of the
relevant data. Having making sure that there is no ready-made corpora of
contemporary NYT obituaries, the researcher decided to build such a corpus from
scratch to analyze the discourse structure of NYT obits. After settling the issue of
whether to build the corpus on our own, the next questions the corpus builders
encounter are how large the corpus should be and how to make sure the
representativeness of the corpus. The answer to these two questions, according to
Meyer (2002), rests on the phenomenon one is investigating. For the greater the
variation in the corpus text under study, the more samples and the larger the corpus
are required to ensure representativeness and the validity of the data (cited in
Flowerdew, 2008, pp. 25). Conversely, one could argue that the more common the
feature one wish to investigate, the smaller the size of the corpus is required.
(Flowerdew, 2008, pp. 25). The discourse structure of a genre or sub-genre, for
instance, is one such feature since all texts from a genre or sub-genre tend to share
similar pattern of discourse organization (Biber, et al., 2007, pp. 19). Hence, it is
reasonable to hypothesize that the size of the corpus may not be such an issue for the
current study, especially when consider the formulaic nature of contemporary
obituaries (Johnson, 2006, pp. 31).
3.2 Sampling plan and corpus description
When collecting the sample for media studies, the most pressing question is
always the purpose of the project. The obvious reason is that the specific purpose of
the project not only determines the selection of samples but also the size of the sample.
Therefore, defining the purpose of the study is usually the first step in data collection
that researcher must follow. To define the purpose of the project, decisions are
required on three main areas: the specific genre of the media content, the media outlet
that carries the content, and the output of the media outlet.
The outlet refers to the media organizations carrying the content. The genre
concerns the text categories of newspaper content (e.g., feature articles, general news)
in which the researcher is interested. The output is here defined as the product of the
media outlet and the time period to be covered. For the current study, the outlet at
stake is the New York Times. The target genre is the obituary in the defined obituary
column of daily newspapers. The output is the news obituaries of the New York Times
in June, 2009. Although the daily under study runs news obituaries and death notice at
the same page, the current study focused only on news obituaries, for death notice are
not newsroom-produced texts. In specific, death notice is the paid advertisement
contributed by the family or the funeral home. These ads are the province of classified
advertising department, which operated independently of the news department.
4. Results and discussion
The structure of the New York Times is illustrated by two tree diagrams. The
first one is based on Bell’s framework for news discourse, showing similarities and
differences between NYT obituaries and hard news stories. The second one is adapted
from White’s structure of hard news stories, demonstrating that NYT obituaries are
also orbital organized.
Like weight bear walls, NYT obituaries depend on certain structures to hold
them together. The analysis performed on the small corpus of New York Times
obituaries found that, NYT obits seemed to have a common discourse structure. As
the figure 3 showed, major elements comprised the NYT obits included the abstract,
attribution of source of news, and the portrait of the subject. Attribution of where the
news comes from was usually placed outside the main text of the obit and set in
different typeface and size. The source of the news was often indicated by the
journalist’s byline or, in the case when the obit is contributed by wire service, the
agency’s credit and the place of the news. In a resemblance to hard news stories, an
NYT obit always began the reportage with an abstract, telling in a nutshell what the
news was about and why it justified readers’ attention. However, whereas the focus of
a hard news story was often on the news event, an NYT obit had its angle trained
primarily on the character and accomplishment of the departed. Thus, instead of
answering what’s happened, an NYT obit seeks to answer in a nutshell what’s the
legacy of the subject in its lead. It was also around this kernel of character and
contributions that the remainder of the obit revolved. In specific, what followed the
lead was always a recount of the subject’s important accomplishments along with
anecdotes illustrating the character of the subject. Then, more background information
of the subjects was offered and told in a chronology order. Information contained
typically include: the upbringing, history of education, military service (for male
subject), publications, career, marriage, honor, awards, and office held. Last, the coda,
by reiterating the legacy of the departed (i.e. accomplishments and offspring),
wrapped up the reportage in a full circle by relating back to the point raised in the lead.
As such, at every turn, an NYT obit, akin to a hard news story, was orbital organized,
in which the lead, as the kernel, was surrounded by several satellites elaborating and
contextualizing the lead, adding details to the lead and flesh them out. Occasionally,
an NYT obit also provided information of memorial arrangements set up to remember
the subject.
NYT Obits
Time Headline Lead
Character & Background
Time Place Age
Legacy Memorial
Figure 3. The discourse structure of NYT obituaries
Figure 4. Orbital structure of NYT obituary
5. Findings and suggestion
As a preliminary analysis of the format of contemporary obituaries in the New
York Times, the study has revealed possible regularities in the construction of NYT
obituaries. It is recognized, however, the present research is subjected to certain
limitations. In particular, the research examines only one newspaper publication. The
finding of the paper, as a result, may or may not be able to be applied to other quality
newspapers in the English-speaking countries. Second, the limited size and time span
of the sample also indicates that the finding of the paper is suggestive rather than
definitive. Last, the corpus used in the study is not annotated. Annotated corpus would
allow more through analysis to be pursued, such as the proportion of word class in
obituaries. Given the above limitations, it is suggested that future researches on
obituaries might consider using a larger corpus consist of more samples on a wider
time span from more newspapers. In addition, the line of inquiry can also be
broadened to the linguistic dimension of obituaries. Researches on the linguistic
features of obituaries lend itself to the identification of stylistic variation of obituary
practice across societies for genre is a culture construct which varies with culture,
times and fashions.
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