Lesson One: The fatal car accident

Most of what I do as faculty adviser Hilltop Views, the student newspaper at St. Edward’s University, amounts to offering routine guidance during the rare moments I’m not buried under a mountain of administrative tasks. My conversations with the editors usually go something like this:

“No, you can’t use ‘I’ in a news story (as in helpfully offering your opinion about whatever the Student Government Association did at that meeting you’re covering). Or, “How about trying something new this year? (in reference to Topper Tats, the weekly “profiles” of students’ tattoos that I’ve been trying to kill for three years), but it’s your newspaper, so your decision.” Then, I sigh.

Occasionally, however, something happens that forces the editors into the world of professional deadline reporting and editing, an event of consequence, one that requires them to ask difficult questions, one that requires me to push them to do what they have learned in class, but never practiced. This is my sixth year at St. Edward’s and, until last week, I am thankful to report that only one such tragedy, a student’s fatal, off-campus overdose, had come my way. That changed when SEU senior Emily Palmer-Dunham, a Photocommunications major, drove her Honda Civic south on Austin’s busy northbound highway and crashed head-on into Robert Murphy, a 48-year-old father of three. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he died. She was pronounced dead at the scene. The accident happened in the early morning hours of Wednesday, October 23, 2013.

What follows is a timeline of events, from my end, on Oct. 24, when the news broke at Hilltop Views. An Online Editor-in-Chief (HV has two) and the Print Editor-in-Chief are working on the story together. I have expunged their names and the names of faculty and staff members, using titles instead. This day’s advising was conducted by text message, email and telephone. Coverage of this story is continuing….:

12:41 p.m.: An online editor texts me. I am at home. I try to stay off-campus on my non-teaching days in hope of getting my own work done (you know, writing articles, maybe even that book). Rarely happens.

Online editor: “A photo student died last night in a car accident. I only have her name and where the accident happened. We should wait for more solid info before actually moving forward with a story, right?”

Me: “Yes. You need to confirm her death. What’s your source of info? Who was it? If it happened in Austin, there should be a police report.”

Online editor: “My source is another student who knew her. (A Photocommunications professor) informed him this morning. And yes, it happened on MoPac (Austin’s heavily-trafficked north-south highway). Her name was Emily Marie Palmer.”

Me: “Go talk to the (Photocommunications professor). Tell him you guys want to do an obit/profile.”

Online editor, 1 p.m.: “Ok. I’ll find out where his office is.”

Me: “I would tell him that you don’t want to get ahead of notifying the family, etc., but that you all would like to have something written that includes something about who she was – her interests, work, etc.”

Online editor: “Ok. I was worried about stepping on his emotions, because I’m pretty sure they were close. But I guess this is journalism?”

Me: “Well, it’s about how you handle yourself. Tell him how sorry you are and that you extend condolences on behalf of the Hilltop Views staff. Tell him that you would like to be able to write about her work in Photo and that you were told he had worked with her. I just found a story on FOX about a car accident last night. I’m going to email it to you. A 26-year-old woman driving the wrong way on MOPAC slammed into a car and killed the driver, who was 48.”

Online editor, 1:16 p.m.: “Ok. His class ends at 1:45, so I’ll come back to talk to him.”

Me: “Read your email first.” Note: I sent further guidance via email. Here is what I suggested the the editor do: “Send this story to (University spokeswoman) and ask her if the University has verified that, a) A student died in a car accident last night that, b) The student was the person whose name you sent me and that, c) This accident, reported on FOX News locally, is the accident in question: http://www.myfoxaustin.com/story/23766313/two-dead-after-overnight-car-crash. I would also contact (the Photocommunications professor), say what I advised you by text message, and see what, if anything, he will tell you. Get a police report from APD. (The Print Editor-in-Chief) called them about the carjacking so she can help you.” (A St. Edward’s employee had her car stolen at gunpoint earlier this semester. The student newspaper covered that story).

Online editor, 1:38 p.m.: “Alright, I’m emailing her now.”

Me: “K”

Online editor, 2:24 p.m.: “(University spokesperson) has confirmed that it was Emily and her parents have been informed. I talked to (Photocommunications professor) and got some info on her work. I know a number of students who were close to her so I could probably get quotes from them.”

Me: “Sounds like you have a story. (Print Editor-in-Chief) is at APD trying to get more there. If you want me to read anything, let me know. Was (Photocommunications professor) ok?

Online editor: “(Print Editor-in-Chief) asked me to come along, so I’m with her. I’ll send you a draft ASAP. (Photocommunications Professor) seemed very sad, but also willing to help.”

Me: “He’s a good guy. Have you Googled her?”

Online editor: “I have not, but my friend told me about her work being featured around Austin.”

Me: “I’m Googling her now. Describes herself as an insomniac in her Twitter profile.”

Online editor: “Oh no.”

Me: “You guys should request the toxicology report, assuming there will be one. It’s a public record- Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office. Get in touch with former Hilltop Views Editor-in-Chief Tristan Hallman (now a reporter at the Dallas Morning News). He had to do it when he wrote about a student death. She knew (a former Hilltop Views editor).”

Online editor: “Yeah, she was pretty well known on campus. We’re about to ask about the toxicology report, though they won’t tell us anything in person and gave us a number to call. Also, will we be allowed to release her name?”

Me: “Did (University Spokeswoman) confirm? You texted me earlier that (University Spokeswoman) confirmed, right?”

Online editor: “Yes, (she) confirmed and the family has been notified.”

Me: “Then you can report her name, attributed to (University Spokeswoman).”

Online editor: “Ok.”

3:26 p.m., Online editor: “Ok, we just got back on campus.”

Note: The two editors write the story and ask me if I will look at it when they’re done. I continue advising, this time with the Print Editor-in-Chief. I’m switching back and forth between the two students.  

3:36 p.m., Print Editor-in-Chief: “APD said we can’t release her name yet because even though the University had alerted her family, APD hasn’t. So I’m keeping in contact with them to see when they alert her family.”

Me: “What does that mean? Her family knows, which is the point. Did you ask someone at APD’s permission to release the name?”

Print Editor-in-Chief: “They told me I couldn’t release the name before I even asked permission. I’m in contact though.”

Me: “When are they notifying the family?”

Print Editor-in-Chief: “She didn’t give me an exact time but gave me a number to call to find out.”

Me, knowing full well the students are absolutely within their legal and ethical rights to report the name, but sensing the editor’s discomfort: “Report everything you know but the name. What was her major? Age? Her Twitter account says she was an Iowa native.”

Print Editor-in-Chief: “So you think we’re able to report she was  a St. Ed’s student, but not her name?”

Me, admittedly getting impatient: “I am confused. (Online Editor) told me that (University spokeswoman) confirmed she was a  St. Ed’s student. She was on the record, correct? He has also interviewed (Photocommunications professor) and is interviewing (former Hilltop Views editor who knew Palmer-Dunham), at 4 p.m. Why would you not report what you know?”

Print Editor-in-Chief, 3:35 p.m.: “Because APD isn’t allowing us to report her identity and I thought her being a St. Ed’s student is part of her identity. But I understand what you mean…”

Me, offering deadline-fueled, on-the-fly instruction about public information: “APD said they don’t want you to report her name which, just fyi, doesn’t mean you can’t. However, Hilltop Views can honor APD’s request not to print her name. HV can also report that you all have learned about this story, including what you know about the driver. Did you ask if there will be an autopsy?”

Print Editor-in-Chief: “Okay got it. It’ll be up ASAP. I didn’t ask but I will now.”

Print Editor-in-Chief, 4:17 p.m.: “I emailed you a draft.” Note: We can argue all day about whether I should be reading a draft. Some advisers say no, no, no. However, at SEU, I am expected to advise, which is what I am doing when I offer guidance in this instance. This does not, nor has it ever or would it ever, amount to prior review. Students are free to publish what they wish.

Note: The EIC sends a brief story that includes no quotes from the faculty member who had been interviewed or from the former Hilltop Views editor, a Photocomm student who knew Palmer-Dunham and had also agreed to be interviewed. Essentially, they send what’s called a “cop brief.” It is devoid of any information about the SEU student, information I know the two editors have. Again, I explain to them both that the story needs to have what they know about the student and, if possible, as much as possible about the other victim, a man they later learn was a father of three. They are reluctant. I explain that their job is to cover the news as accurately, fairly and sensitively as possible. Their readers and online users will want to know as much as possible about what happened. I do not agree with withholding the driver’s name, but it is the students’ editorial decision, not mine. They rework the story, adding detail and quotes, but not naming Palmer-Dunham. They post this story on the website at about 6 p.m. The Print Editor-in-Chief leaves for a 6:30 p.m. class. I then confer with both students by text, email and phone about how to follow up. They will need to find more information about the dead man, about the student and, in a few weeks, they will need to report the results of toxicology tests on Palmer-Dunham. The Print Editor-in-Chief has formally requested those test results and has placed Hilltop Views on the Austin Police Department’s list of news organizations to be notified of news about the case.

Me to Online-Editor, 10:35 p.m.: “(A member of the St. Ed’s community) announced the death on FB and named the student, FYI”

Online-editor:Yeah, some people have been naming her on FB today.”

Me: Still aware of the students’ hesitation and, at this hour, fatigue, I decide to suggest that the editor make the change in the morning: “You guys should change it tomorrow. There is no reason not to.”

Online-editor:That’s what I was thinking, to be honest.”

Me, 10:45 p.m.: “There is no legal or ethical reason to withhold the name at this point.”

Online-editor: “Ok, then I’ll make sure to change it in the morning.”

Me: “I also messaged (Print Editor-in-Chief). See if the (Photocommunications professor) will give you a photo of her to run tomorrow, too, why don’t you?”

Online-editor: “Sounds good.”

Note: The students continue reporting for the weekly print edition on Oct. 30 and to update the story currently online.  I urge them to try to contact family members on both sides and, especially, to find out more about Murphy. I explain that they cannot forget there are two victims here, and that balance and neutrality are critically important.

Here is the first version of the story they prepared for publication in the Wednesday, Oct. 30 weekly print edition. The pages go to the printer no later than 3 p.m. This is also meant to update the online story. Does anything strike you as not quite right?



Not sure? Here are the final pages. The revised story is online now:

Final Page 1

Final page 2