Last week I wrote a story about the death of a young man who wrecked his car on the way to school, a high school senior named Stephan Ramirez.
In writing the story, I interviewed his mother and several teenagers, all of whom called me up to talk about their friend. One of those teens raised questions about reckless driving.
Since the story was published, a small firestorm erupted on Facebook, where the consensus seems to be that I wrote the story for sensational purposes, and accused the young man of driving recklessly, without regard for the family’s feelings. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Over the years I’ve had to write several of these stories, looking at the tragic death of a young person in our community. I have four children of my own and these stories hit very close to home for me; my youngest is only a year older than Stephan. As I’ve told many mothers, including Sondra Ramirez, I don’t know if I would be able—or want—to talk to a reporter if I had just lost a child. I can’t imagine the pain and devastation the family is going through, and the last thing I wanted to do with my story was to add to the Ramirez family’s anguish.
I called Mrs. Ramirez with a sincere intent to apologize to her for the pain my story had caused, after she left a message on The Independent’s answering machine expressing her outrage.
I understand and respect why she is angry, and I regret that what I wrote caused her additional pain when she is already grieving a son.
Here’s why I wrote it.
I don’t believe in censorship, and the teenagers who called me to talk about Stephan’s death expressed various feelings, including one young man who brought up the question of whether Stephan may have been driving recklessly. I didn’t pursue any of those teens—every single one of them called me.
I asked the sheriff what the cause of the accident was, and quoted him saying that the cause was not known yet.
I tried to be as sensitive as possible.
The role of a newspaper in a community is larger than simply giving people a place to vent their feelings. We have to ask the hard questions—like what was the cause of the accident. We have to explore the larger issues for the community of which we are a part, like whether distracted driving—a relatively new phenomenon—might be a public safety issue.
When I was a teenager, and had recently been handed my own set of keys to our family’s only vehicle, I took every opportunity I got to drive 100 miles an hour. When I was 16 years old, after driving for less than a year, I pulled out in front of a semi with my sister, my brother and a friend in the cab of our tiny Datsun pickup truck. We got hit by that semi, and it’s a miracle that I’m alive to write about it now. My mother could have lost three children that day, not to mention my brother’s friend. My sister was 15 and the two boys were 14.
It is not out of character for teenagers to be reckless, and it is an appropriate question to ask, in my view.
However, the story could have been written in a more sensitive way, or the question could have been brought up differently. I could have done a better job.
I cried for this young man, just like I have with all of the young people whose deaths I had to write about. I certainly never intended to cause additional pain to his family, and for that I sincerely apologize.