“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 Brontë—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.
RELATED: The cost of reporting while female
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.”
Other notable stories
- Don’t place all of the blame for fake news on bots. A new study from scientists at MIT shows that “humans, not robots” are more likely to spread false news, and they do so at surprising speeds. “Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information,” write the authors. The LA Times’s Karen Kaplan has a summary of their results.
- Former President Barack Obama is in talks with Netflix about a deal to produce a series of shows for the streaming service, according to The New York Times. “Mr. Obama does not intend to use his Netflix shows to directly respond to President Trump or conservative critics,” the Times
- More than a decade after his acrimonious departure from CBS News, the 86-year-old Dan Rather has found a new platform on social media. For CJR, Ben Bergman looks at Rather’s second life, in which he’s built a following through “near-daily Facebook posts in which he expounds on American life, politics, and, especially, Donald Trump.”
- We’ve grown used to anonymous sources providing context to White House reporting, including updates on the president’s mood. But The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple points out that reporters don’t always agree on when the president is angry. Should journalists report on Trump’s emotions? “By all means: Report on Trump’s moods. They matter,” Wemple writes. “At the same time, be careful. In a White House that runs a gaping trade deficit with the truth, nailing down immutable facts is a large challenge.”
- Most major outlets—from The New York Times to HuffPost to Fox News—have used Russian tweets as sources for partisan opinion. For CJR, Josephine Lukito and Chris Wells report on their study showing the pervasiveness of accounts linked to a pro-Kremlin troll farm.
- Nice scoop from BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel, who reports that in the days before joining the White House, Jared Kushner tried to sell his newspaper, the New York Observer, to Donald Trump’s political enemies. Kushner engaged in talks with Hillary Clinton ally David Brock and Clinton donor and Univision chair Haim Saban, but the deal fell apart over money.
ICYMI: The Stormy Daniels story finally makes landfallPete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.