Ruibal column: The dangers of covering death
“People don’t ‘pass on.’ They die.”
That’s what one of my most trusted friends and colleagues told me once when we were working on the college paper together.
Under the entry “death, die,” the AP Stylebook reads, “Don’t use euphemisms like ‘passed on’ or ‘passed away’ except in a direct quote.”
When you’re 20 and 25 years old, death seems so foreign that it can be easily applied to hard and fast style rules.
After my friend graduated, I led the newsroom in covering multiple young deaths at Ohio State. A young woman was kidnapped, raped and killed after leaving her job one night. Another young woman leapt off a campus parking garage.
A couple of weeks ago, I reported on the death of Hayden Kennedy, 26, and the Hotel Colorado incident that left Amber Benallou, 15, seriously injured.
Young people are often criticized for thinking that they’re invincible, and, at the same time, any sensitivity is marked as the sissification of a generation. I stared into nothingness at my desk that week, lost in thought of all the young people who I never knew about until their end. It wrecked me.
A reader sent me an email saying that I need to be aware of the power of language in this valley, highlighting how I used “killed” and “died” in the Kennedy story. It was a thoughtful critique. She was correct. There is an exact perfect word for everything.
I didn’t intend to come off as hard and careless, as if Kennedy was just a number. Reports come in at different speeds and degrees of accuracy. My job is to try and find the truth beneath it all. Sometimes I get it wrong. I’ll be the first to admit.
To me, “died” was the truth. It is what happened. And there’s no better justice you can do someone than telling the truth.
I am also, as many other readers like to point out, young. I have a lot to learn about my career and about life itself. The only way to do so is by experiencing, and subsequently making mistakes to then learn from.
My mother always emphasized to me the sentiment of there being a perfect word. She, a journalism vet herself, kept a dictionary on her desk.
My mother called me recently to tell me my granny, her mother, was nearing the end after years battling Alzheimer’s. Friday morning, the news was confirmed.
“She has passed … and I truly believe that’s the best term for what happened,” she said.
There is a perfect word for everything, and there is always a need for the truth.
My deepest truth is that I’m trying.
Sallee Ann Ruibal is engagement editor for the Post Independent. She always welcomes constructive feedback, but does advise that sneers of “snowflake” are not constructive. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.