Last week, The Half Moon Bay Review’s Carina Woudenberg found herself on an uncomfortable phone call.
It followed the death of a 77-year-old woman who was killed by a car as she attempted to walk across the street at dusk. Carina drew the assignment and called one of the woman’s many friends in the area. Unfortunately, the woman on the other end of the phone hadn’t heard the tragic news.
Did Carina do anything wrong?
Before you answer, let’s consider how these stories play out in communities like ours. There is a crash followed by police sirens. Maybe you hear it on the scanner or get a press release about a fatality. The initial story is likely to be sketchy. Maybe you don’t know the identity of the deceased. You likely share the news online as fast as you can.
Then, maybe the next day, the coroner or the sheriff gives you a name. You poke around to find whether the deceased is prominent, whether you’ve written about her before. Perhaps you simply update the old story with the name.
Carina did the right thing by trying to make the victim a flesh-and-blood human being. We got a break when someone we knew said on Facebook he knew the victim. Carina talked to him to learn she was a devoted mother and grandmother. A Google search revealed she once worked as a nurse at a local hospital.
That was when Carina called the hospital and inadvertently broke the news to an old friend. …
Stories like this are three-dimensional and defy some prescriptive policy that fits all occasions. I can say that you never want to break news like this to family, and you don’t, but even that can be complicated in the real world. Is a second cousin the same as a daughter? What if the mayor died in a spectacular plane crash and everyone seemed to already know? Would you wait to call around? How long?
I have found that, much more often than not, people welcome the chance to talk about their dearly departed. That is true as long as you are respectful, not intrusive and always willing to call back at a more appropriate time. We aren’t The New York Times. A death like the one Carina reported isn’t a matter of public record, it’s the loss of a neighbor. I think we owe it to her to tell readers who she was not only that she is gone. It was a tough, and hopefully rewarding, day at the office for Carina.