Honoring the Dead Online

By: Steve Outing

Editor’s note: Steve Outing’s next column will be published Wednesday, Oct. 31.

In America’s latest “war,” thousands of people have died — in hijacked airliners, in the World Trade Center towers, at the Pentagon. Many more people likely will die in the aftermath, as U.S. military personnel and those from other countries go on the offensive against terrorists and the governments that harbor them, and other civilians die in inevitable further terrorist attacks.

A significant role for media — as it’s always been — will be to honor and tell the story of those who died (and will die) in this conflict. The trouble is, the numbers already are so great that it’s difficult to focus on the individual human beings lost. Instead, news media focus, it seems, on the statistics — and tell anecdotal stories of some of the victims, as representations of all those killed.

But the Internet may offer a solution — a way to honor each person lost, without losing the individuals in the sheer size of the loss.

I was reminded of the enormity of media’s task by an audio interview last week (on National Public Radio) with an editor of The New York Times who is in charge of obituaries for the 6,000 people who died September 11. The paper is making room for a full daily obits page, featuring short profiles of those who died — but the number of deaths that the paper must deal with just from the World Trade Center tragedy means that the obituaries will be published over the course of the next 10-12 months, and even spread out that much they can’t include a lot of depth due to space limitations.

How can the Web be utilized to do a better and faster job at honoring those who lost their lives, and serving the families of the victims? Let me count the ways.

Highlight everyone, now

The Web offers significant advantages over traditional print media in a situation like this. Just as newspapers can carry much more information than TV news about individual victims, the Web can offer far, far more depth than newspapers.

The primary example of this is the Web site produced by Legacy.com in conjunction with its various U.S. media partners (mostly newspapers). The Legacy September 11 site is working toward having a profile and “guest book” for every single person lost in the tragic events of that day. A database has been created that lists everyone lost in the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, and on each of the four hijacked jet flights.

According to Legacy.com Chief Operating Officer Hayes Ferguson, her company began this project shortly after the attacks. Databases were created with lists of the victims of the various tragedies collected from public authorities. Legacy also is collecting obituaries and death notices as they are published by various partner media, and that limited information serves as the initial profile of each victim.

This cross-media effort allows all the victims to be at least noted initially in a way that’s more than just a name on a long list and perhaps a small photo.

Friends and family … and strangers

What I find to be even more interesting is the “Guest book” component of the Legacy.com memorial site. For each person listed as a victim of the terror attacks, there is a guest book link. People who knew the victim — as well as strangers — can submit comments to a guest book that is attached to that person’s online profile.

With the numbers of people killed in the September 11 attacks, it’s unreasonable to think that any news organization — even ones as resource-rich as The New York Times — can do an adequate job telling the life story of every single victim in a timely manner. Short of spending a lot of money and staff overtime on hastily produced profiles/obituaries, the only alternative is to let the people who knew the victims and the victims’ families tell the story.

Ferguson says that many of the terrorism victim guest books are filling up with poignant stories and tributes. Family members tell stories of the victims’ lives, and post photographs. Friends post condolences and remembrances. (All submissions to the guest books are vetted by Legacy editors before being posted publicly, says Ferguson — and yes, there are people who are attempting to post inappropriate comments.)

It’s this “user-generated” content that often tells the best stories of a victim’s life. A touching essay by a brother, sister, child, widow or widower is often more informative and evocative than anything a professional reporter can produce based on a couple phone calls. For instance, in a guest book for WTC victim Richard Bosco, a childhood friend wrote, “Growing up on the same block, our families were friends and I remember spending many fun times in their company. I was about three years younger than Rich but I remember him being the equivalent to the Fonz and he took me under his wing letting me tag along with him on summer night games we used to play.”

An interesting phenomenon occurring on the Legacy.com site is the number of guest book tributes being submitted by people who do not know the victims. These are often thoughts of condolence and comfort to the families, so they typically don’t add much to the conversation about what a victim’s life was about or what kind of person he or she was. Legacy includes stranger comments as part of the regular guest book for each victim, though an alternative is to segregate such contributions and keep family and friend remembrances in a separate area.

(Ferguson says her company’s experience has been that families mostly have expressed appreciation when they get kind words from strangers. If something gets past Legacy’s editors that they object to, families can ask that it be removed.)

Supplementing print coverage

Print newspapers should be thinking about using the Web to flesh out the stories of the many victims. A one-paragraph obituary may not do justice to a lost life, so think about adding a note to print-published obits telling readers where they can find additional information and family comments online.

This technique is an excellent way to round out the commonly used print media technique of running a page of photos (“mug shots”) of multiple victims of a tragedy — such as all the people lost on one of the hijacked planes. Include a short URL or other brief code that Internet users can use to read about the person’s life online. It’s a way to get to the individual, and not have the page focus solely on the number of people lost.

Use the Web to gather information

You may not want to rely solely on contributions from friends and family, so consider using the Web to help gather information about victims that can be useful to your staff journalists in their reporting. Especially in situations like this where there are so many victims, getting the public’s help can be quite useful.

USA Today has a Web form devoted to collecting information about the dead from September 11. While some of this information is used directly on its site (after being confirmed as accurate), it’s also reporting fodder for the national newspaper’s journalists as they cover the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

Multiple entry points

The great thing about online media is its flexibility in situations like this. Says Paul Grabowicz, director of the new media program at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism, the Web is a terrifically useful medium for presenting terror victim information from a variety of entry points — something not possible in traditional media.

For instance, using Web databases of the thousands of terror/war victims, an Internet user might search for all the people killed from a particular company that was in the World Trade Center. Maybe you want to see a list and read about all the firefighters or police offers who perished, down to the detail of those from a particular fire station or precinct.

Communities formed around deaths

What’s happening online with the deaths of so many people on September 11 is that communities are forming. Says Owen Youngman, vice president of development for the Chicago Tribune and a Legacy.com board member, “What I’ve been seeing is that the sense of community that the Web can engender is accentuated in times of loss like this.”

This isn’t a new phenomenon, he says. When people like columnist Mike Royko and Chicago Cubs announcer Harry Carey died, the same thing happened, as people flocked to the Tribune‘s Web site to post remembrances and tributes — forming an instant online community. When the archbishop of Chicago died, Youngman recalls, people began posting photos of him at their children’s baptisms.

People want to share their memories, he says. Providing a venue for that “is as valuable a thing as we can do.” Youngman thinks that newspapers, in particular, are in an ideal position to provide these kinds of services.

“It augurs well for our role going forward” when newspapers perform this sort of public service.

Bringing them back together

In thinking about how to deal with thousands of deaths and the concept of online community, it’s worth comparing online obituary sites with Web sites that create communities of former school classmates, such as Classmates.com. These sites exist to help people find old friends from high school or college. They create online communities of people who have dispersed around the country and world.

Obituary sites created after the terrorism tragedies likewise can have a similar purpose — allowing easy database searches for an individual who a distant relative or old friend suspects might have been a victim. And communities of far-flung people who knew someone who indeed was a victim can be created by the tragedy — bringing people back together who have been out of touch for years.

Alternative Web presentation

Another type of Web site that has some potential applications to multiple deaths is the “rate me” site. Sites like AmIHot.com have a simple concept: they present one photo after another of people who post their photos, and site visitors click on a ranking (of their looks) from 1 to 10. Each “vote” click returns the aggregate score for the rated photo, and another photo to rate. (Such sites typically are supported by advertising.)

While the “AmIHot” breed of Web sites are rather banal, the concept might be applied to presenting profile packages of many victims. Apply the idea to hundreds of obituaries of terror attack victims, and you can have users clicking one after another to view a “slide show” of individuals who were killed. They can be presented in random order, so that if a site visitor returns to the feature a different day, the same profiles already seen won’t appear at the beginning of the viewing.

While this may not be the most brilliant idea for handling multiple deaths, the “rate me” sites have demonstrated that they can be addictive for users. Your site’s visitors may find that they want to learn about the lives of victim after victim.

The charity angle

The techniques suggested here for handling the many tragic deaths in the September 11 terror attacks should probably be viewed without a profit motive. Trying to make money from such content could stir a user backlash. But a money angle that is acceptable is using terror-obituary sites to solicit donations to relevant charities. Family members of a victim might select a charity, then have the victim’s profile page solicit donations on behalf of the deceased.


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