Sun's coverage of fatal car accidents may do some good

Public Editor

December 10, 2006|By Paul Moore | Paul Moore,Public Editor

Recent stories about two deadly local automobile accidents moved readers deeply. The articles were profoundly disturbing. Reporters and editors don't enjoy working on these stories, but it is their responsibility to cover them thoroughly to help readers try to make sense of such terrible events.

The Sun and other newspapers take reporting on drunken driving, speeding and reckless behavior behind the wheel much more seriously than they did in previous decades. This means reporting about the cause and effects of deadly accidents that goes beyond a formulaic, police-blotter approach. Increased public awareness of the terrible consequences of auto fatalities and more aggressive enforcement of stricter driving laws is partly due to improved media coverage.

In my view, the newspaper's work on these two stories exemplifies the kind of reporting that could make a positive difference in the long run.

In the first case, a Marine home on leave and his date were killed Thanksgiving night in Howard County when their car was hit by one driven by a man with a blood alcohol level four times the legal limit. The Marine, Cpl. Brian Matthews, 21, was stationed in San Diego and had served eight months in Iraq. His companion, Jennifer Bower, 24, lived in Montgomery County. The other driver, Eduardo Raul Morales-Soriano, 25, has been charged with vehicle manslaughter and drunken driving.

Additional reporting by The Sun's Melissa Harris showed that Morales-Soriano had been cited for drunken driving in February but that the case had been dropped because of "weak evidence" - which allowed Morales-Soriano to retrieve his driver's license, which police had confiscated. The newspaper later reported that Morales-Soriano entered the United States illegally and had obtained a Maryland driver's license partly because he first obtained one in North Carolina - a state whose loose requirements used to make it a favorite spot for undocumented aliens seeking identification cards.

In another article last week, The Sun's Andrew A. Green reported that this case is likely to resurrect debate in the next Maryland legislative session over whether to prohibit giving driver's licenses or other means of identification to illegal immigrants. Currently, Maryland does not prohibit the practice.

In the second automobile case, on Dec. 1, a 55-year-old pedestrian who was pushing her 3-year-old grandson in a stroller was struck by a driver of a pickup truck. The child and his stroller were dragged under the driver's truck for eight-tenths of a mile thorough a Baltimore County neighborhood before the boy was dislodged. The driver, Lazara Arellano de Hogue, 40, later stopped the truck, pulled the stroller out from underneath, and drove home.

The boy, Elijah Cozart, was still conscious when police arrived at the scene. He was pronounced dead minutes later at a nearby hospital. His grandmother, Marjorie Thomas, remains in serious condition with life-threatening injuries to her head and left side.

Arellano de Hogue was arrested at her home a few hours after the accident. She has been charged with failing to stop her vehicle at the scene of a fatal accident. Officials are also considering manslaughter charges. Arellano de Hogue, whose bail was reduced from $2 million to $250,000 Tuesday, is a native of Mexico who lives legally in the United States.

Most people who called or wrote about the drunken-driving case reacted to Morales-Soriano's immigration status. Brian Sanborn said: "Please continue to monitor the drunk driver who killed Cpl. Matthews. This is why we should not give immigrants licenses and why we should not allow them to remain in the country."

The Sun played the first two DUI articles on the front page but ran the immigration status article on the Maryland section front. Regional editor Jon Morgan explained: "Stories that reported Morales-Soriano had been previously stopped and apparently eluded prosecution for both speeding and drunk driving were more important, because a successful outcome of that earlier case may have meant loss of driving privileges or even deportation - which might have prevented this tragedy."

The Sun also gave the first two articles about the hit-and-run case front-page play. The story about Arellano de Hogue's bail review, in which more details about the accident were reported, was played on the Maryland section front.

Readers reacted strongly to all the articles.

Cheryl Ragsdale said: "How in the world can the judge reduce bail? I can see if this woman stopped, but she kept going, dragging the child with her, then dislodges the stroller and goes home. Reducing her bail lets others know that they can do the same."

These are hard, complicated and difficult stories to report and edit, but The Sun's solid coverage signaled to readers and the community that such incidents should not be accepted or forgotten.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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