Lobdell: Coverage of accident has been fair

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.

The two other people who died that day — Christopher De La Cruz, 49, of Laguna Niguel and his mother, Linda Burnett, 69, of Santa Ana — apparently led more private lives, and family members and most neighbors declined to be interviewed. Their stories may never be made public.

(By the way, this was one of the odd things about covering tragedies as a reporter. Some family members of victims want nothing to do with you. Others are thankful to have someone who will tell their loved one's story; they get some solace from it.)

To be fair, I'd guess the media didn't spend the same energy on piecing together the lives of Cruz and Burnett as they did Allen. But the mother and son didn't cause the crash. Their actions weren't in question. There wasn't a pressing need to know how they ended up on West Coast Highway that day.

But if their families want the community to know about their loved ones, there would be plenty of journalists ready to listen.

I've been moved reading about Allen's life. I disagree with a few critics who say the media has jumped on her story because she was an attractive young blond who lived in affluent Newport Beach. I think a former prep star and Stanford runner who lived in Westside Costa Mesa and died under the same circumstances would have received similar coverage.

(This isn't to say the media is biased toward tragedies involving young, attractive, rich women; but in this case, I don't see it.)

My heart goes out to the families and friends whose loved ones died or were injured in the crash. The randomness of it must be awful.

And for those who have already tried to put the blame on Allen for what happened, let's have patience and see how the investigation unfolds.

In the meantime, how about making a point today to give an extra compliment, hug or kiss? How about all three? At least that's one lesson we can learn from this tragedy. Don't take tomorrow for granted.

WILLIAM LOBDELL — a former editor of the Daily Pilot and Los Angeles Times journalist — is a Costa Mesa resident who runs a boutique public relations firm. The column runs Tuesday and Friday. His e-mail is bill@cat5communications.com.

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