Why and when the media kill off prominent people before they die

Thursday February 13 2020

A Nairobi resident reads a local newspaper whose front-page story is about the death of former president Daniel Moi, on February 4, 2020. The Moi story was done comprehensively and meaningfully. PHOTO | SIMON MAINA | AFP


The Nation managed to quickly put together a comprehensive narrative and analysis of the life and times of former President Daniel arap Moi.

He died on Tuesday, February 4, at 5.20am — long after the Tuesday paper had been printed. But the Nation published a special in-depth report the following day.

The 32-page pullout, billed Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, President and Commander-in-Chief of the Kenya Defence Forces, 1978-2002, was extra to other news and analytical pieces about Moi in the newspaper.

This February 5 edition of the newspaper is truly a souvenir. The front-page headline reads: “The last imperial president.”

It also carries an imposing portrait of Moi in military attire. His pose and poise are refreshingly and strikingly captured in the black-and-white picture.

Subsequent issues of the Nation published more stories of the departed former president. The picture-packed issue published on Thursday reads like the grand finale.



It carries the simple but effective headline: “Go well, Mzee Moi.” The total coverage is evidence of a well-planned editorial effort to narrate the Moi story comprehensively and meaningfully.

How did the Nation manage to do such an amazing job? It’s a secret little known to readers that it is the practice of the media kill off prominent persons weeks, months and even years in advance to give themselves plenty of time to research, write, edit and put together appropriate pictures and graphics for a complete and comprehensive coverage.

Then when the person dies, they simply press the button and the reader is immediately presented with a comprehensive analysis that looks as if it was written yesterday.

The advance obituary is also known as premature obituary, stock obituary and advancer.

Big media like the New York Times and CNN have such obituaries of people who are so prominent that the media house would be embarrassed if they could not publish their comprehensive obituaries as soon as they died.

The New York Times is said to hold a stock of more than 1,200 advance obituaries.


I can’t tell you how many the Nation holds because I don’t know and I dare not ask. I’m not even sure I would get straight answers if I asked.

You see, the media are not comfortable talking about the premature obituaries they have written. Editors do not talk openly of killing off people (writing their obituaries before they die).

So it did not seem like a good idea for me to go around asking how many people the Nation has killed off and who they are.

In our culture, too, we are not comfortable talking about mortality. It’s considered morbid to think of and imagine the death of a living person.

But I can tell you the majority of the obituaries published in the Nation are not written in advance.

Premature obituaries are usually written for people who are famous and are sick or at risk because they are over the average life expectancy of 70.


I can also tell you that, occasionally, this practice of writing premature obituaries can lead to huge embarrassment and loss of credibility on the part of the media when the obituaries are mistakenly or accidentally published.

On April 16, 2003, for example, CNN accidentally released draft obituaries for seven major world figures, including Nelson Mandela.

On June 14, 2013, Mandela was again reported as having died in an article on the Deutsche Welle website. Mandela died on December 5, 2013.

Locally, some prominent people have been killed by the media. Sometimes they are killed through rumours.

One killing that had the potential of becoming a major embarrassment for the Nation was the false report on the death of Kiambu business tycoon Njenga Karume.


On February 4, 2012, NTV reported on its Twitter and Facebook pages that Karume was “dead”.

Fortunately, NTV discovered the error before it unleashed whatever advance obituary it had, if any. Karume died 20 days later.

Nothing, possibly, can be as mortifying and traumatising as an obituary of the pre-dead. Editors beware.

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