Emotionally charged deaths require careful handling

February 26, 2015

By Andrea Hansen Abler
Editor | Campbellsport (WI) News

As newspaper editors and reporters, we have our fair share of accidents to cover. Many times they are fairly basic and other times they are more complicated. But once in a while, we have a more high-profile accident to cover.

I had one of those high-profile incidents Feb. 4, 2012. This became evident the minute I heard about the accident—an SUV carrying a large group of local high school students.

When an accident involves young people, it usually draws more attention, especially in a small town. In this case, nine girls who were associated with the high school soccer team were involved. Three of the girls were killed in the accident, four suffered severe injuries and two sustained minor injuries.

The accident happened at about 3 a.m. on a Saturday morning as the girls were on their way back to a sleepover from a night of fast food and fun. According to the police report, they decided to take a detour on the way home to travel at a high-rate of speed over a bump in a local road to “get some air,” which is something generations of students before them had done. The SUV was going 108 mph when the driver lost control. It overturned numerous times in an adjacent field, throwing a few of the girls from the vehicle.

As news of this incident spread, residents of the small town of 2,000 people and its surrounding smaller communities were in shock. Many knew the girls or their families. Much of that first day was spent wondering which of the three had been killed, and paying close attention to the couple who were still in critical condition.

For me, this meant getting as much information as possible about the accident and the condition of each of the girls. I talked with first responders that morning. It was evident many of them were having trouble dealing with the accident scene. Some knew the girls and were trying to keep their emotions in check while trying to do their job. Most were hesitant to talk about it.

Some of the larger media outlets flocked to our small town to cover this story. But by having those personal contacts and being the local media person who is here to cover all of the events—big and small—those involved felt more at ease with me and were more willing to talk about the accident. Some were still hesitant, however, but they wanted the good things about these girls to be told and wanted people to know they were all grieving together. Because they already knew me and trusted me, the first responders, sheriff’s officers, families and friends felt more comfortable sharing their information with me. I assured them this story would be handled like all the other stories I had written for the 1,800-circulation weekly, and I believe that put them at ease.

A candlelight vigil was held at the high school that Sunday night. Hundreds of community members and high school students turned out for this event where local clergy and some family members talked about the girls. This was a surreal experience for me as I walked into the commons area and saw 8 x 10 photos of each of the girls displayed on the wall with a notebook under each photo for people to write words of encouragement for the injured girls, and words of condolences for the families of the girls who were killed.

Working at a small, weekly newspaper has been a rewarding experience for me. I cover many different areas of this community with a chance to focus on schools in particular. I also got to know many of the families in the area, as well as the students.

These relationships are a source of pride for me, but in this instance it made coverage more difficult. I knew these girls and many of their families. One father was the girls’ soccer coach, one mother is a town clerk in the area, one family owned the local golf course.

The girls were all active in the school, so I also knew the girls from the many times I had taken their picture for sports, school honors and other activities in which they were involved. I knew I had a job to do, but I was also dealing with my own emotions, and seeing these families and their friends mourn the loss of three bright young girls and sit by the bedsides of those critically injured was one of the most difficult things I had faced in my years as a journalist.

It was a joy to see the neighboring small school districts rally behind our students and families. The outpouring of support to this community was fantastic.

As time passed, some of these sentiments changed. The support for the families and the students involved in this accident was still there, for the most part. But 10 months later when the driver was in court for her sentencing hearing on charges from the accident, some of the support had wavered.

The families and friends of the girls who were killed asked for a strict sentence. Friends and family of the driver asked for leniency in sentencing. It pitted members of the community against one other. Now, three years later, things are better. The injured girls have recovered, and all have gone on to college.

It is difficult sometimes to cover a situation like this, especially in a small town where everyone knows everybody. But, as long as you stay professional, do your job and be a bit sensitive to the situation, you can get the story and the make best of a terrible situation. © Andrea Hansen Abler 2015


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