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The Worth of A Life 

How the media picks who we mourn

The name Juan Carlos Zaragoza Lopez probably doesn't ring a bell with most Charlotteans. That's likely because his death at the hands of an intoxicated driver on Sharon Amity Road in May merited only one line in a 145-word blurb buried on page 3B of the Charlotte Observer's Metro section. I have no idea whether Lopez, 20, was loved by anyone or where they buried him, because these unimportant details didn't make the Observer's "cut" or merit a follow-up story. Maybe Lopez didn't "touch the lives of everyone around him," or some other cliche like that. Or maybe he just wasn't photogenic enough for a half-page spread. Too bad, Juan, guess the driver should have looked out for that tree.

But let two photogenic 19-year-old white college co-ed cousins, one of whom attended Charlotte Country Day, die tragically at the hands of an intoxicated, reckless driver and neither their families nor you will be able to get away from the heartbreak. Suddenly, the Observer interviews everyone who loved them and cranks out a series of tear-jerker stories with titles like "Forever Young," obsessing over their "beautiful lives." Most of the rest of the local media was just as bad, dwelling almost voyeuristically on the tragic loss of cousins Sally Clark and Anna Jordan and following the families through the funeral process, presenting a morbid slide show of grief in intricate detail.

Granted, it's not every day that a non-photogenic 21-year-old male with a bad buzz cut gets drunk and slams his car into another vehicle at more than 80 mph, killing two cousins. But it does happen.

Although most folks probably don't remember it, it wasn't too long ago that another set of cousins was killed by an out-of-control driver in Mecklenburg County. Lee Taylor Farrar, then 21, was running from police at about 90 mph when he ran a red light on Wilkinson Boulevard, slamming into a vehicle occupied by construction worker James Hamrick, 34, and his cousin Danny Thomas McCorey, 40, who at the time was on disability after a heart attack. Both men died at the scene, just like the young women above.

But in this case, the deaths only merited two lines in a story on 4B of the Observer's Metro section. Two follow-up stories were done, not because the men's deaths were tragic -- the deaths were barely mentioned -- but because there were questions about whether the police chase that led up to the crash violated department policy. Both men took care of their mothers and were great cooks, one of the brief sentences written about them said. That's it.

Even though I don't recall hearing much about it, seven people died last year in auto accidents caused by intoxicated drivers in Mecklenburg County. Dozens more died as a direct result of the actions of reckless or careless drivers. Go back five years, and the numbers begin to climb into the hundreds. Some of the victims, like 8-year-old Montre Threatt, who was killed by a drunk driver while crossing Eastway Drive, were children. Threatt's death merited several one- and two-line mentions in stories about the dangers of children crossing roads. The details of his life didn't merit much mention at all.

After reviewing half a decade's worth of these cases, it seems to me that going out in a fiery wreck or a gruesome accident isn't enough to earn yourself a few days of legitimate mourning in this community anymore. You've got to be young, beautiful and educated. Your family has to put on a funeral in which large numbers of attractive people show up to mourn you. And you absolutely can't be black, Hispanic or much older than 25.

Only then will the media deem your passing newsworthy enough for the community to weep over. But if your name's Juan, well, you can forget it.

Sometimes an interesting or romantic plot twist also seems to help. The death of an adorable 14-year-old girl named Heather Michelle Sherrill made the front page of the local section last week after an auto accident in which an 18-year-old boy who planned to take her to the prom was driving.

What's ironic about this, though, is that Sherrill, who lived in Kannapolis, and the two photogenic co-ed cousins, whose parents live in Lincolnton, weren't from Charlotte, while Hamrick, McCorey, Threatt and Lopez all lived in this city before their deaths.

Please understand that I am not making light of the tragic accidents or the loss of life of anyone's family members or friends, but the kind of coverage we've seen surrounding the senseless deaths of Sally Clark and Anna Jordan leaves me feeling a little grimy -- not because of what it says about the subjects, but because of what it implies about the value of the lives of those who died unknown.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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