A couple weeks back, a friend of mine died. He was young and talented, from a family whose name you would probably recognize if it were printed here. Still — like most people who die in this state — his death warranted only a paid-for obituary in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
While that doesn’t seem fair, especially to someone who knew him, maybe that’s the way it should be. As the friends of beautiful and popular Central High cheerleading captain and homecoming queen Kelsey Gadberry have recently found out, having your loved one’s death elevated to the status of “news” by the media can be a double-edged sword.
In case you haven’t been following, Gadberry, 18, died in a one-vehicle accident in North Little Rock on Feb. 2. It was a tragedy, just like any young person’s death. Unlike most traffic fatalities, however, Gadberry’s story played Feb. 4 on the D-G’s page 1-B, and was taken up by most of the Little Rock TV news outlets as a major story. Three days later, the D-G editorial page published an editorial about Gadberry, titled “All-American Girl,” saying Gadberry’s story reads “like make-believe, it’s so perfectly American,” and listing Gadberry’s academic and athletic accomplishments. The same day, D-G sports editor Wally Hall used his column to cover much of the same, glowing ground. That’s a lot of column inches.
Then, on Feb. 13, when the coroner’s toxicology reports came in, Gadberry’s friends and family learned about the other side of fame. Many Little Rock news organizations, including the Arkansas Times blog, reported that at the time of the accident, Gadberry had a blood alcohol content almost three times the legal limit, and traces of cocaine in her system. The D-G ran the story in virtually the same place as its earlier piece about Gadberry’s death: 1-B.
D-G deputy editor Frank Fellone said that he was out the night the decision was made to run the story of Gadberry’s death so prominently. “Hindsighting,” however, he said that four factors made Gadberry’s death news. First was her status as a public figure (via the television commercials for the Arkansas Department of Higher Education that featured Gadberry and her fellow Central High cheerleaders). Second, that she came from a relatively prominent Little Rock family. Third: the city’s interest in the goings-on at Central High School — a phenomenon, he said, not restricted to the Dem-Gaz (“That’s simply part of the history, the legacy… of the ’57 crisis”).
The final reason, Fellone said, is harder for readers to grasp: “Every day is a new day,” he said. You’ve got six stories that you’re going to put on the B front and you pick the six best. Most interesting, most consequential.” On another day, he said, it’s “very likely” the Gadberry story would have gone inside. He said that the media’s current obsession with the “beautiful victim” story (a la Laci Peterson and Natalee Holloway, the girl who went missing in Aruba in May 2005) played no part in the decision to run the story so prominently.
As for the placement of the story about alcohol and cocaine found in Gadberry’s system, Fellone said that D-G editors debated the topic, and decided for the sake of consistency to play it in exactly the same place as the first story. “You like to be at least reasonably consistent in where you play news,” he said. “Sometimes we’re not… sometimes we’re wildly inconsistent.”
Editorial page editor Paul Greenberg said that what determines the decision to write an “obituary editorial” is the human interest of the person’s life. He said he published the piece about Gadberry’s death because the story “had an appeal all its own.”
“You would think that this would be a kind of picture-perfect American girl,” he said. “That’s what catches your attention and that’s what made her story interesting to us.”
Greenberg admits that Gadberry’s physical beauty played a part in the decision to write about her. “I think it’s just human,” he said. “When you read a fairy story, it’s often about the beautiful princess, or the Cinderella story. Beauty plays a part in our interest in stories. It’s part of the human narrative, I think.”
So far, of the two opinion writers, only Wally Hall has written a follow-up. (Greenberg said that “a number of thoughts have occurred to us” about readdressing the story). In a piece that appeared the same day as news of the toxicology findings, Hall admitted that he had heard that Gadberry might have been drinking even before he wrote his initial column about her death. “My opinion of her as a person did not change because she made some terrible mistakes,” he wrote. “Still hasn’t. She wasn’t perfect, but in her heart and soul, she was a good person. She never intended to hurt someone else.”
That’s a nice sentiment, but we also know that the collective memory has a way of streamlining a person’s death down to the ugliest details, and the sad truth is: because of a burst of media interest — maybe genuine sorrow or maybe just sniffing after the latest tragic story about a beautiful blonde — Gadberry will be recalled by many who never met her as that coked-up, drunk-driving cheerleader who got herself killed. For the family of a girl with so much more going on in her life, knowing that might be the second biggest tragedy in all of this.