SARA VANDEN BERGE
Itís been a little more than a month since I lost my dad - four weeks and four days to be exact.
Although Iím still in the serious grieving stage, I am getting to the point when I can honestly say that Iím beginning to have good days. I know that I will feel happy again and that the incredible loss I feel now will ease over time and I will learn how to live without him.
Five days after my dad passed, I returned to work. I needed to get back to a routine. I needed to focus on something more than cancer and death and tears.
But things sometimes have a strange way of turning out.
In my attempt to get away from sadness and find some sense of normalcy, tragedy seemed to abound. In a matter of days, Stephenville and the tight-knit community of Glen Rose lost two of their own. Both young men, who graduated from each of their cityís respective high schools, died unexpectedly in tragic accidents that left their families grief stricken.
I wrote the news story about the death of Stephen Ables, a 2008 graduate of SHS, who apparently died of alcohol poisoning. I approached the news story as I always do. I spoke with the authorities, found out what they knew and began writing. The story appeared the next day on the front page. Then came the obituary and picture of a beaming all-American kid who was no longer alive.
It tugged at my heart.
I happen to know Stephenís great-uncle and I asked him if he thought Stephenís father Michael would speak with me. He agreed and the following Sunday, after numerous interviews, I published the story about the life and death of Stephen. The compelling component of the article, however, came from Michael, who described in heart wrenching detail what it is like to lose a child.
Days later, the Glen Rose Reporter, which we also own, ran a story about Ryan Darby, a handsome, 21-year-old, who was killed in a one-vehicle accident in Stephenville. This time, my reporters, one in Stephenville, the other in Glen Rose, wrote news stories about the accident for both publications.
The outcome, this time, however, was not what I expected. Ryanís family was devastated by the cold nature of the article. They didnít believe the story reflected the kind of person Ryan was or the legacy he left behind. They were angry.
A few days after the story appeared in the Reporter, I drove to Glen Rose to meet with the family. In my relatively short career in this business, I can honestly say that it was the best meeting I have ever had.
The conversation was a difficult one, but it opened my eyes and forced me to re-evaluate the way our newspapers function when tragedies like these occur.
I blame myself.
One of my shortcomings as a reporter is that the job often makes me feel uncomfortably intrusive. I have no qualms about waltzing into a meeting and asking tough questions or pushing the district attorney or law enforcement officials for information about stories I believe are important.
But I struggle with picking up the phone and calling parents who have just lost a child. Since I have such an aversion to it, I have never pushed my reporters to do it either.
The result is always the same - cold news stories that give the appearance that we donít care about the victim or their families and that weíre missing a sensitivity chip.
Sitting across the table from Mr. and Mrs. Darby last week, I asked if they would have wanted a reporter to call them following their sonís death.
Mr. Darby looked me straight in the eye and said, ďI would have at least liked to have had the opportunity to refuse.Ē
More importantly, he would have liked to have had the opportunity to tell the community a little about his son, how special he was and how much he will be missed.
His words stung like a dart to the jugular. He was right.
I was doing things wrong and vowed while sitting at that booth, sipping coffee and sharing tears, that our newspapers would do things differently when it comes to these types of stories. We owe it to our readers and more importantly, we owe it to the communities we serve.
SARA VANDEN BERGE is managing editor of the Empire-Tribune. She can be reached at 254-968-2379, ext. 240.