An explanation

Published 7:57 am Friday, September 4, 2009

How do you explain to angry and emotional readers your reason for making them angry and emotional when you still have a hard time explaining it to yourself?

That’s the dilemma I am faced with today.

When I first sent Charlie Passut to cover Monday’s funeral of Deputy Christopher Ray, who was killed in a Saturday morning car accident, I envisioned a story celebrating the life of this upstanding young man. The reporter, who had permission from the family to attend and take pictures, came back with just that.

Ray was remembered by his friends as someone who loved the outdoors, practical jokes and cooking. He was excited about his new job as a Southampton County deputy and had dreams of becoming a federal law enforcement officer.

Strengthened by their love of Ray, four of his friends even came to The Tidewater News office to lovingly recount his finer attributes.

Charlie later returned from the funeral having deep sorrow for the loss of a young man with tons of potential, as well as pity for Deputy Jason Brinkley, who was driving the car when the wreck occurred. Charlie told me that he shook Brinkley’s hand and asked the young man how he was doing. He told Brinkley he was sorry for his loss.

He had no idea that Brinkley’s name had been in our newspaper before.

In fact, no one in our newsroom knew until after deadline that there was any connection between the driver in Saturday’s accident and another news event in 2008, when a then-Franklin police officer was arrested on a DUI charge and later pleaded guilty to reckless driving.

When I made that connection, I was faced with a major decision.

Deputy Brinkley’s driving and employment record is news, especially since we have reported on it twice in this newspaper and especially since he was involved in a fatal car accident. I went back and forth about when and how to present that information to our readers.

Should I add a passing mention to it in the funeral story about Deputy Ray, I wondered?

Should I break it out into a separate news story, drawing even more attention to it?

Should I ignore it entirely?

I struggled mightily with the decision, talking to several people whom I respect for their take on it, including Charlie, who wrote two sentences and e-mailed them to me to put in the article.

We have reported on newsmakers’ pasts in other articles and have been chastised for it by those newsmakers’ friends and relatives. Though we felt extreme sympathy for Brinkley, we couldn’t ignore relevant background facts.

Well past deadline on a Tuesday night, I decided to add the two sentences that still haunt me today.

Though many readers are blasting Charlie as heartless and cruel for including information about Brinkley’s past, the blame rests entirely with me.

It was my decision to include those two sentences.

It is my job to unemotionally report the news, and that’s how I tried to look at it. Nothing that happened late Tuesday night was malicious in any way. Despite the opinion of one angry caller I spoke to today, we do not hate the police.

We are not blind to the further pain those sentences may have caused, and for that I am truly sorry. We are not inhuman or incapable of feeling sorry for these two families that are forever changed by this terrible tragedy. We did not know Deputy Ray, but we have shed tears for him just as many in the community have.

Perhaps the otherwise lovely story about Deputy Ray should not have been tainted with the information about Deputy Brinkley. Deputy Ray deserved a better sendoff.

In hindsight, I wish that I had held the information about Deputy Brinkley for another story.

Either way, however, my intent was never to disparage or demean the memory of Deputy Ray.