Posted by: mbtrotter | November 10, 2010

Oops, you’re dead!

All of 30 Rock‘s comedy aside, prepared obituaries are very common among news outlets. The Associated Press has a pretty extensive file, including ones for Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse, and Access Hollywood has one about Lindsay Lohan at the ready.

In case you were wondering, yes, sometimes that leads to problems. In August 2008, Bloomberg published its prepared obituary on Steve Jobs on the business news wire. And although it wasn’t a mistake by a media outlet, Sen. Ted Kennedy’s Wikipedia page was updated to say he had died — eight months before he really did.

Prepared obituaries are a way for news outlets to, much like those annoying Internet commenters, be first with a story. In the news, they call that “timeliness” where the journalists are working and “killing the competition” in the business office.

“There’s much more pressure to get the news out right now,” publicist Michael Levine told the AP. “You distribute or you die.”

Deciding who gets a running obituary file is difficult, Washington Post reporter Adam Bernstein said in the same report.

“It’s a complex issue, a complex debate. It’s unclear to what degree somebody really is on the edge. So do you spend the time to put something together when you’re wondering whether it will run now or 70 years from now?”

Lou Ferrara, the AP’s sports, entertainment and multimedia managing editor, was among those who requested Spears’ obituary be written.

“I don’t think anyone particularly likes this part of the business, but it is something you need to do,” he said.

(Do you think the AP has a prepared obituary for any of those three?)

What happens when famous people turn it around and don’t seem like they’ll die anytime soon? Are their obituaries kept around or trashed? Or, as Tracy and Jenna do in the clip, can celebrities improve their obituaries by doing good things?

More disturbing than legitimate news outlets keeping prepared obituaries on file is the list of prepared stories at Wikinews. There are plenty of obituaries among them, but how about “Flash floods hit mainland Britain”? or “Mayan ‘Doomsday’ passes without ill effect”? Those are stories news outlets would be slammed for having at the ready.

Bonus points to this episode of 30 Rock, by the way, for also lampooning the absurdities of “Today,” including bad writing and terrible guests. Way to bite the hand that feeds you! And what about the “Today” crew being in the show?

All video in this post is the copyrighted material of NBC Universal and was purchased by the author for not-for-profit use.



  1. wow…I did not know that this was a practice. Makes sense. If you ask me everynews outlet would have one prepared for the famous dumb asses with the high risk behaviors.

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