Lobdell: Coverage of accident has been fair

January 20, 2011|By William Lobdell

The absolute worst part of a reporter's life? Being sent to interview friends and relatives of someone who just died — usually in accidents or by the hands of others.

My heart would pound as I knocked on the front door of a family whose father or mother, sister or brother had just died in a newsworthy way. Would a grieving relative berate me for my insensitivity? I would if I were on the other side of the door. Would I be the latest in a long line of journalists turned away? Would I find a way to satisfy my editor back in the newsroom who yelled at me as I went out the door, "Don't come back without a story!"

I found the ritual so distasteful that I mapped out a journalistic career — as a specialized reporter and as an editor — in part because it greatly reduced the chances that I'd end up on the doorstep of a family in mourning.


I was reminded about this aspect of the business — which always made me feel like a heartless vulture — during the media coverage this week of the horrific 10-car accident on West Coast Highway near Riverside Avenue in Newport Beach that left three dead, including former Corona del Mar High School track and field star Julie Allen.

There's been an undercurrent of criticism among readers: Why so much attention on 27-year-old Allen, who police said caused the accident by driving the wrong way on West Coast Highway at 90 mph? Why so little information on the other two people killed on a sunny afternoon last Saturday?

The first reason is simple. There's a mystery about what caused the crash. Did Allen's accelerator get stuck — as apparently happened recently to an Allen family car? Did her suspected history of mental illness play a role? Was she drunk, on medications?

Much of the media coverage tried to solve the riddle of why a winsome former prep star and Stanford athlete would be barreling down the highway in the wrong direction. No one has the answer, and maybe we will never know what exactly caused the accident. In the meantime, we try to put together as many pieces of the puzzle as possible.

Here's another reason why Allen attracted the majority of the media attention: She made a positive and very public imprint in the community as a high-achieving student-athlete, and journalists were able to easily access her life through friends, coaches, teachers, Internet sources and past stories.

Her life story, as reported with its trials and triumphs, was compelling, refreshingly human and all too short.

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