Editorial: Humanity takes priority in coverage of tragedy

Last week, the Baylor family mourned the loss of San Antonio freshman Will Patterson.

Patterson’s death garnered attention from nearly every media outlet in the Waco area as reporters scrambled to find every detail and get their stories to the wire first.

When the Lariat looks back on how we reported the tragic news, we hope we didn’t miss the one element that is too often lost in stories like this: humanity. At the core of this story, minus the confusion surrounding Patterson’s death, is the loss of a young human life.

As a news-gathering organization, of course we always want to scoop other media outlets, especially on a story affecting our school. So we talked to authority figures and used our sources on campus to find as many facts as quickly as we could.

In doing so, however, we could not forget the sensitive nature of the story. Unlike the local stations catering to all of Central Texas, we weren’t on the outside looking in.

Unfortunately, we witnessed firsthand when death became just another story for journalists.

The initial reports from some stations included footage of emergency workers extinguishing Patterson’s burning Cadillac, shown for one minute with no narration. The footage combined with the lack of commentary was chilling, which we suppose was the purpose of the video, but it was also disturbing.

On campus, a reporter stood outside a residence hall, informing students of Patterson’s death and then immediately asking for comments. Another reporter brought a cameraman into our newsroom unannounced, wanting statements from us the day Patterson was confirmed dead.

We answered phone calls last week after anonymous sources told TV stations about a surveillance video, which apparently showed Patterson buying gasoline in a store 15 minutes before his death. That alone was enough for most stations to run a story, despite the fact that it did not bring anyone closer to an explanation.

To us, one minute of a surveillance video does not constitute a story. It constitutes an implication, which we as media are often guilty of creating without concrete evidence.

As we’ve said, the nature of the story leaves many questions. It’s hard enough for a family to lose a loved one, and odd circumstances make it that much more difficult for members to find closure.

Until that point, we will let authorities do their job and we will keep implications out of anything we report. Our job is to answer questions, not create them.

We certainly haven’t been immune to the pressure existing in this up-to-the-minute world of news coverage. In fact, we considered ourselves fortunate to beat all the local stations on identifying the owner of Patterson’s Cadillac following the initial reports.

But we can’t forget this story hurts many people, whether they knew Patterson or not. We can’t forget the sincerity in Baylor’s statement, which read, “The thoughts and prayers of all of us in the Baylor family are with the Pattersons.”

Patterson’s pledging fraternity extended the same condolences, and Baylor reminded students of the grief support group available to students each week.

It’s that human element, which offers sympathy and compassion, that people appreciate. If we lose that, we fail the readers we serve.