Oops a daisy

Dateline: Sun 16 Sep 2007

Buddy K. Paul Mallasch of the online Muncie Free Press noted Friday that the Gannett-owned Muncie Star Press published a fake obituary for one Shawnda K. Hatfield. Seems Ms. Hatfield was wanted on forgery charges in Delaware County; the paper published the paid obit; and somebody (?) faxed it to the judge in the case. The judge didn't buy it. Hatfield was eventually arrested at her Indiana home, rather than at the Florida crematory where she was supposed to be "residing," according to what the Muncie paper wrote.

Mallasch reported that Associated Press broke the story; he read it in the Indianapolis Star.

While the Muncie Star Press has acknowledged its error, it was not made clear whether or not the newspaper's classified section called to verify if the information was legit, notes Mallasch.

Once upon a time, of course, newspapers employed cub reporters to write obituaries -- a job on which many a journalist honed his/her skills. Obituaries were considered a sacred cow; they were not something you wanted to screw up, ever. Hence spellings of names and factual information all had to be double-checked with the funeral home and sometimes the family.

How big of a deal was this? Big enough that when the longtime obit reporter at the Indianapolis News died many years ago, she was laid out with her trusty pencil over her breast, placed in her casket "reverently" by several reporters.

Paid obits may have taken some of the zip and training out of the newsroom for novices and others, but they also open up newspapers to the possibility of red ink on their "faces"... and that lingering rep for not being accurate. Of course, they do make money. But at what cost?

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