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Covering a high-profile death

I wrote an obituary once for my dear friend Stanley Longstaff, who was also a an inspiring influence in my approach to journalism. Along with many other friends, I had helped his family take care of Stanley for several months until he succumbed to cancer. It must have been the day he died, or the day after, that I sat with his wife at their kitchen table, where we wrote an announcement of his death and a description of his life. It was sad and beautiful and an absolute honor.

Reporting about the death of Ed Robb was very different, but really no less of an honor. As Presiding County Commissioner, Ed Robb was a person whose work influenced the lives of every person in Boone County to some degree or another and whether they knew it or not. It was essential to treat his death, and the people we contacted about it, with the utmost respect. It was also urgent that we get the story, get it quickly, and get it right in the most thorough way possible that day. Thank goodness our government editor Scott Swafford came in to guide us. And thank goodness I got to work with Alexandria Baca on the reporting.

We sat side-by-side at our computers and worked with Scott to get up to speed about Robb’s political history and personal reputation. We brainstormed who to call and what to ask them. Alex and I shared what we learned with one another and have continued to stay in sync about our subsequent reporting and contacts with sources.

I have noticed bylines on big stories in newspapers that say things like, “This story was reported by X, Y and Z and written by W.” Now I get it. At the same time I was feeling sympathy for the friend, rival or family member we reached out to, I also got a rush from the fast-paced and integrated way the three of us worked in the newsroom to cover this unfortunate, breaking news.

As reporters (heck, as human beings) there is no way we can prevent most of the bad things we cover from happening. What we can do is report on them quickly, accurately, thoroughly and respectfully so that the public isn’t left wondering about what happened or what will happen next. Ed Robb’s death was the first breaking news story I have contributed to. I learned a lot about the process, and I feel proud of the work we did together to achieve those goals.

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