Even Without Malice, Errors Still Hurt

Reporters may have felt they didn’t want to intrude, but far from a closed and hushed house between Sheona’s death and her funeral, it was literally an open house.

Last year I had the absolute tragedy of attending the scene of my 15-year-old daughter Sheona’s death. Four out of five media outlets published factual inaccuracies that caused additional pain and suffering to family, friends and those involved. I know there was no intended malice but unlike others who could throw their hands up and ‘blame the media’, I am a trained and ethical journalist who had to explain how the mistakes could have possibly happened.

Sheona was hit by a car while she and a friend were crossing a busy suburban road. As she stepped off a raised median strip and crossed two lanes of stopped traffic a car changed lanes out of her view, into a third lane that had been empty. 

The driver didn’t see her and was doing between 50 and 60 km/hr. As she stepped out she looked momentarily, but it was too late. She was struck, propelled head first into the car’s windscreen and then into the wheel of a stationary truck ahead of her in the lane she had just left. She landed underneath the truck where it was impossible to revive her due to massive head injuries.

Media inaccuracies, survivor guilt

A national wire service published a report from an ambulance officer who wrongly deduced she had been run over by the heavy haulage truck and its attached tipper.

A regional daily ran with the wire story, shocking friends and family who had heard of our tragedy, but not the details; and the truck driver and his company whose logo was prominent at the scene until they removed Sheona’s body from underneath it.

The truck driver rang me mortified at the thought of all the people that drove passed thinking he had run her over. He needed to hear from us that we didn’t believe it. He cried as he told me he tried everything he could to help her. He said he tried desperately to get someone to help him try to find her pulse. He covered her up and held her hand, patting it saying ‘You’ll be okay now, mate’, until emergency services arrived and confirmed what he already knew. I would have hailed him the compassionate hero, instead he feels condemned by ‘the media’.

His employers, whose company name had been visible on his truck, called other media outlets to warn them they would sue if they repeated the wire story. This company is rightly proud of having one of the best safety records of any fleet with regard to driver training and operation of their heavy vehicles.

After the threat of legal action, another daily newspaper published a short para using ‘…was hit by a vehicle…’ which worked if the facts were still not clear.

On the morning of Sheona’s funeral, our own suburban paper ran the story ‘School in mourning’. It did cover Sheona’s popularity at school, work and the wider community, but it also quoted a police officer — who as far as I’m aware did not attend the scene — saying she was 20 metres from a pedestrian crossing (a jaywalking offence in Australia). She was in fact approximately 57 metres from the crossing — not an offence.

Sheona’s 15-year-old friend, who was crossing with her at the time, believed this report and even up to the inquest was fearful that she would be held responsible in some way for Sheona’s death. She has been suffering survivor guilt, with this as part of the illogical evidence that she was unworthy.

Keys to accuracy

Both of these inaccuracies happened because media outlets failed to confirm quotes from officials and only used one source for each detail. The ambulance officer quoted was the only person attending the scene that thought she had been hit by the truck.

The distance factor could have been easily investigated by the local paper as they have an office across the road from the scene. Distance is difficult to judge at times and if it makes a difference, particularly in a legal sense, then it should be more accurately measured.

The other thing they could have easily done is investigate the bigger story to come out of this — why didn’t they cross at the crossing? In an effort to understand why they didn’t, and why so many people were telling us hardly anyone uses that crossing, my husband and I twice observed pedestrians on the same day of the week around the time Sheona had been killed.

Out of 178 crossings, on an average of one a minute, we witnessed nearly 90% of pedestrians crossing away from the crossing. They crossed in stopped or a break in the traffic conditions as Sheona and her friend had done to avoid walking out of their way to access the crossing.

These were in peak hour, across a major road where the speed limit of 60 kph will kill 9 out of 10 pedestrians if a collision occurs.

If you follow the Australian Road Building standards, the crossing defies logic by being outside of the route and direction most people are travelling.

The majority of pedestrians are moving between a major shopping centre and a train station located down a side street before the crossing. Sheona and her friend had been heading to her friend’s mum’s work located in the side street.

It wasn’t the authorities or the media that brought this to the attention of the Coroner. We did, in an effort to save the lives of other pedestrians in the area. The Coroner has now recommended that authorities look at moving the crossing to be within the route of the majority of pedestrians.

Quoting a private conversation

Having dealt with these other two inaccuracies my sister, as close and as caring an aunt as we could possibly have to our children, came to us distraught that she had been unknowingly quoted in an article run in our former, very close-knit community’s newsletter.

It reported she had said Sheona had a 'premonition' about her death because she had recently been speaking about death and funerals, among other personal and/or out of context parts of a private conversation she thought she was having with a family friend.

The reporter and publisher has been a family friend since Sheona and her daughter became friends at three years old. She called my sister only hours after the incident, personally devastated to hear the news and outlining the distressing impact on her own daughter. At the close of the personal conversation, my sister agreed that it would be nice if this friend did a story about Sheona in the small local paper that she publishes. At no time did she think she had just been interviewed for that story.

Sheona was a Kids Helpline Peer Support counsellor and had been counselling younger kids about the recent tragic, violent deaths of two young friends, and another young boy who had been killed crossing further up the same road some months before. I must have mentioned to my sister, at least we knew what sort of a funeral she wanted. Because of these and other tragic deaths, we had talked about death and funerals. It’s probably something we all do when faced with our own mortality.

It worried Sheona that funerals were often nothing like the person involved. She outlined how she would like her funeral to be with her own choice of music (not sad hymns) and fun like she was, how she would want people to cry to show they loved her, but not sad all the time, and she would want people to send lots of flowers, real, smelling ones.

She picked a song she would like, and we said something like ‘You’ll pick a hundred other funeral songs before you’ll need it’. Unfortunately, the need came sooner rather than later.

My sister was devastated when she read very personal observations made in shock and grief to a friend, being made public. She felt betrayed and was concerned we would think she had betrayed us.

When I discussed this with the reporter she said she had heard my sister was upset, but she felt vindicated when she heard in the Eulogy that Sheona had indeed picked the song we had played at the start of the service.

The list of unethical and unprofessional mistakes, that she wasn’t even aware she had made, was too long for me to correct. I suggested she get professional training (of which she has none) and in the mean time, she should at least clarify herself in the role of a reporter before talking to any possible source for a story. I addressed the inaccuracies in my own open letter to the community in a rival local paper.

No malice, but errors cause pain

In tragic situations like this, the slightest error can cause untold hurt to those already suffering. It’s not like an investigative piece where you may feel you have to hide what you know. I feel you should discuss and confirm the details with a variety of sources until you’re sure you have the facts.

I can’t speak for every family, but I would have much rather have at least been contacted by the reporters who were writing about my daughter and her death.

At least I knew she was hit by a car, not run over by a truck. That she was 57 not 20 metres, from a pedestrian crossing and crossing as 90% of pedestrians in that area do. That she did not pick her funeral song because she had a premonition of her death, but because in her capacity as a Kids Helpline Peer Support volunteer she accepted the reality that tragedy can, and does, happen at any age.

Reporters may have felt they didn’t want to intrude, but far from a closed and hushed house between Sheona’s death and her funeral, it was literally an open house. It was full of kids, parents, teachers, Sheona’s part-time work-mates and managers, her netball team and umpiring peers, friends young and old from every walk of life giving each the other support they were used to getting from Sheona and reminiscing about the good times they had with her.

The house was overflowing with more than 200 bouquets of beautifully scented flowers sent in tribute to a popular, funny, loving, caring, full of life, wonderful girl who had touched so many lives with her friendship.

You’ll be happy to hear her funeral went just as she wanted and many there have requested one the same. Many hundreds of people came to celebrate her life. They squashed into pews pushed to the back of the chapel to allow hundreds more to sit on the floor (including us), many more gathered outside when the chapel was filled to overflowing.

Every wall was covered with brightly coloured tribute posters declaring love for her. There were even a few laughs between the tears as friends young and old spoke of her antics and wicked sense of humour during the nearly two hour service.

Her chosen song, ‘The day you went away’ opened it, a school heart throb played guitar and sang an edited version of ‘Last Kiss’, a favourite teacher sang ‘Amazing Grace’ – her one concession for me, and her favourite bounce around, happy song, ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ closed the proceedings.

I know there was no intended malice in the additional hurts we endured but while we have no choice but to deal with the tragic reality, we shouldn’t have to deal with distressing inaccuracies as well. I hope that by sharing this with other reporters it will help them to understand the magnification of feelings at such a time.

May You Rest in Peace Sheona
18 June 1987 — 4 April 2003
15 years 9 months lived happy and well