Writing about death is never easy

070314ripIn more than a half-century of reporting news, the hardest stories to write have always been about death.

In the 1960s, as a young reporter for The Roanoke Times, one of my assignments for the paper required contacting the families of soldiers killed in Vietnam to obtain information for stories about their deaths.

I encountered a variety of emotions from those who lost their loved ones in war.  One father screamed over the phone: “You assholes never cared about him when he was a young man here in the community!  You never wrote about his accomplishments in school or his service?  It took his death in that God-forsaken war for you to put his name in the paper!  Go to hell!”

That phone call still haunts me.  Obtaining information from a family member after someone died as a victim of a crime or from involvement in an accident also brought strong reactions and emotions from friends and family.

Two traffic-related deaths in Floyd County this week show emotions still run strong when the victim is a friend or relative.

Friends of Larry James Scott, a 40-year-old Floyd County motorcyclist killed when his bike collided with a pickup truck on U.S. 221 just south of Check early Sunday evening accused me of bias or bad reporting because I wrote what witnesses told me and the Virginia State Police.

Witnesses said Scott tried to pass the pickup truck on a double yellow, no passing line, and the truck, which was making a legal left turn, appeared to collide with the bike when it started its turn.

Scott’s friends commented on Facebook, here on Muse and in a number of emails — including some obscene ones — that I said without proof that Scott broke the law and caused the accident that led to his death.

Actually, what I wrote recounted what witnesses to the accident said — nothing more, nothing less.

“You weren’t there,” one commenter said. “You have no way of knowing what really happened.”

Sadly, I was there.  Amy and I, ironically, were on the last leg of a drive back from Lynchburg where she had spend three days taking a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course and obtained an “M3” license to operate a three-wheeled motorcycle.

When we arrived at the accident scene, just minutes after the crash occurred, my first concern was for Amy, who went through a traumatic period from my motoryccle crash on Nov. 9, 2012.  That crash almost killed me and Amy was with me through days in a coma in intensive care, 45 days in the hospital and 18-months of rehab and therapy.

At the scene this past Sunday, I talked with witnesses to the crash and reported on their observations of what happened.  The article on this web site was updated several times as more information came in.

As a long-time motorcycle rider, it saddens me when a fellow rider goes down.  As a longtime newspaperman, I have a job to do and reporting not only on Scott’s accident but a second traffic fatality just two days later was part of what I do.

I did not know either of the victims of the fatal accidents.  I had no bias or personal interest in the events that led to their deaths.  I tried to report on what witnesses and the evidence at the scene said.

Yet I now stand accused of showing a lack of respect and/or discretion in reporting the observations of witnesses and the professional investigators of the accidents.

Such statements now only hurt but are outright misstatements.  My reporting on the accidents was consistent with the reporting of The Roanoke Times, Channel 7, Channel 10, Channel 13 and The Floyd Press.  Each of us had jobs to do and we did them.

Errors do sometimes occur in such news reporting.  An early story in The Roanoke Times about my November 2012 accident on U.S. 221 just south of Cave Spring quoted a police department spokesman saying I was wearing a “skull helmet” when I crashed.

I don’t own such a helmet and Amy jumped all over Times columnist Dan Casey for the quote.  Investigation showed a an officer saw a skull motorcycle helmet on a table in the emergency room that night and incorrectly concluded it was mine.  It was not and belonged to another motorcyclist brought in that night from a separate accident.  He died.

The Times corrected the story.

If the still-continuing State Police investigation into the accident that killed Scott shows any errors in earlier conclusions of their report, those errors will be corrected here.

Our sincere condolences to the family and friends of Larry James Scott, 40, and Charidy Lee Anders, 70 — the victims who died in two accidents in Floyd County this week.

Writing about death is always difficult and those of us who have to do so try to tell the stories in a straightforward way.  What I and others have written about Larry James Scott’s death comes from witnesses to the event and the official police record.

If the record changes, we will report it.  Until then, I stand on what I wrote and how I wrote it.


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