Whether it’s a political and cultural giant (Nelson Mandela) or a B-list actor (Paul Walker), we in the media rarely get it right when public figures die.
We get caught up in the moment. We grow sentimental way too swiftly. We lose our heads.
Normally reserved journalists tend to go to extremes in these situations, forgetting the essential humanity of the recently deceased in favour of unyieldingly positive coverage.
In short, we deify the dead.
We remove their imperfections. We set aside the controversies. We exaggerate their legacies.
You could see this tendency at work in the headlines generated by Mandela’s passing and, earlier in the week, in the wake of Walker’s surprise death.
These figures were seen as if through a lens clouded by Vaseline.
Where was the restraint?
The operative logic among my brother and sister reporters seemed to be, “speak no ill.”
Was either man perfect? No, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell by the wall-to-wall stories that verged on hagiography.
Now, I’m not saying Mandela wasn’t a great leader. Nor am I saying Walker deserves to be forgotten.
What I’m saying is, we in the media have a duty to those who have gone to their eternal rest. We owe it to them to say it like it was. Full stop.
It’s not up to us in the media to make mere humans, however famous, out to be god-like beings.
In fact, the opposite is true: We owe it to them to make sure they are remembered in all their flawed glory. We do Mandela and Walker and all the rest a disservice by mindlessly memorializing them.
Let’s be realistic. Walker rose to semi-fame in a lot of really bad movies.
And even though Mandela changed his nation – and, arguably, the rest of the world – he wasn’t without pecadillos. He flirted with communism. He had three wives.
Like everyone else, the former African National Congress leader made mistakes. That’s part of being human.
That’s not racism. That’s real journalism.
Theoretically speaking, at least, journalists shouldn’t be in the public-relations business.
We in the media do not need to flatter anyone.
So my fond wish is for all journalists to set aside a few moments to reflect and take personal stock this weekend.
Repeat after me: Not every passing is a huge loss. Not every death is a tragedy.
And you’re not being mean or vicious if you strive to capture the whole person in your reports.
I’m not urging journalists to be negative for the sake of being negative, but we need to get our sense of perspective back. We owe it to our subjects, and ourselves. Let’s re-commit ourselves to the truth, not the sensational garbage of the last week.