The Media Today

The media today: The New York Times attempts to correct the record

March 9, 2018

“Who gets remembered—and how—inherently involves judgment,” write The New York Times’s Amisha Padnani and Jessica Bennett. “To look back at the obituary archives can, therefore, be a stark lesson in how society valued various achievements and achievers.” That look back through the paper’s archive revealed that women, some famous and some forgotten despite their achievements, have consistently received short shrift in the paper’s obituary section.

Timed to coincide with International Women’s Day, the Times on Thursday launched “Overlooked,” a series dedicated to telling the stories of women whose contributions went unmentioned in their era. That some of these women—Sylvia Plath, Ida B. Wells, Charlotte Bron—weren’t recognized at the time of their death is, frankly, incredible. But their absence from the paper of record serves as a powerful reminder of the challenges women have, and continue, to face.

Obituary pages necessarily reflect the world as it was, but decisions about whose life merits recognition is made in the present. As Padnani and Bennett note, the people recognized by the Times continue to be overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly male. “Even in the last two years, just over one in five of our subjects were female,” they write.

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Obituaries Editor William McDonald has a companion piece explaining why that disparity persists, writing, “Our pages mirror the world of 1975 or 1965 or 1955, or even earlier: They’re a rearview mirror, reflecting the world as it was, not as it is, and not as we might wish it to have been.” The barriers that prevented women—as well as people of color, and those who were openly gay or transgender—from reaching the bar of “newsworthiness” the Times sets still exist, but hopefully they’re being dismantled. “As time goes on,” McDonald writes, “I imagine that their stories will be increasingly framed not by broken barriers but simply by what they built, unencumbered by the dead weights of discrimination.”

Below, more on the Times’s new project and the lives it recognizes. 

  • Origins: Padnani writes that she began developing the idea for “Overlooked” soon after joining the obituaries desk in early 2017. “I knew what it was like to sometimes feel like an outsider,” she writes. “And as an editor at The Times, I wondered what I could do to advance the conversation.”
  • Henrietta Lacks: Adeel Hassan writes about the African-American woman who died at 33 and was buried in an unmarked grave, but whose cells launched a medical revolution. “She never traveled farther than Baltimore from her family home in southern Virginia,” Hassan writes. “But her cells have traveled around the earth and far above it, too.
  • Madhubala: The Bollywood legend was an icon of beauty and tragedy—her dazzling career, unhappy love life and fatal illness more dramatic than any movie she starred in,” write Aisha Khan.
  • Margaret Abbott: “The first American woman to win an Olympic championship died without ever knowing what she had achieved,” writes Margalit Fox.
  • Marsha P. Johnson: In recent years, Johnson’s life and legacy have received mainstream attention, but when she died in 1992, her death didn’t attract much notice. “She was a central figure in a gay liberation movement energized by the 1969 police raid on the Stonewall Inn. She was a model for Andy Warhol. She battled severe mental illness. She was usually destitute and, for much of her life, effectively homeless,” writes Sewell Chan. “Some have called her a saint.”
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Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.