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Telling a tragedy in the community

Posted: February 28, 2014 12:27 p.m.
Updated: March 3, 2014 5:00 a.m.

I have said before -- in fact, not that long ago -- that covering tragedies is no fun. This is especially true when the tragedy takes place where you live, or at least close by. When you can say that you either know the people involved, or are friends of their friends, it hits you even harder.

That is certainly the case as we continue to cover and report on the murder of Briana Rabon, an 18-year-old Lugoff-Elgin High School graduate. For all of us here in Kershaw County, this tragedy took place in our collective backyards.

In my business, though, you have to acknowledge that you feel a certain way, put that feeling to the side and do your job. That means making phone calls, asking hard and sometimes painful questions, and writing the story.

It’s almost impossible to get the whole story on the first go-round, but one of the benefits of working at a three-day-a-week paper is being able to take a little more time to get more of the story by the time we go to press. Friday, we brought you the initial look into the investigation into Briana’s murder. We presented the facts as presented to us by Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews and Kershaw County Coroner Johnny Fellers. We also focused on Briana herself, through the eyes of some of her friends and former teachers.

Today, we provide full coverage of the arrest of the man suspected in her murder, Stephen Ross Kelly, of Lugoff.

As often happens in our business, we hear a lot of rumors, and not just about stories like this, but on just about anything. Two things usually happen: the rumor is so crazy we don’t even bother to follow it up, or we talk to our sources and they tell us the rumors aren’t true. In both cases, there’s no story to print.

Friday, we heard some things about Briana’s murder. They seemed somewhat credible, so we did our job and called our sources. They had no comment.

What to do at that point? Publish a story acknowledging the rumors but that officials didn’t want to say anything about them? Or hold off until the official story comes out with at least one version of the truth? (Remember, suspects are innocent until proven otherwise.)

We elected not to feed the beast. Although I’ll admit we waffled a bit, we ultimately decided that law enforcement -- and Briana’s family and friends -- deserved to let the story take its own course, in its own time.

I had every confidence that, eventually, investigators were going to figure out exactly what happened and where, who was responsible and why, and bring Briana and her family the justice they deserve. It’s possible that Kelly’s arrest means that day is much closer that it could have been.

While none of us here knew Briana or know her family, we consider ourselves part of their community. We’re neighbors, whether right next door or on the other side of the county. Trust me, we do care and want to see the person responsible located, caught and prosecuted -- with the caveat that Kelly is innocent until proven guilty.

But, as I said, we have to put those feelings aside when it comes to doing our jobs. It’s tough, though, let me tell you.

It was tough when I covered my first trial back in 2004 when four children stood up to Lawrence Crawford and helped prosecute him for killing their sister, Karresha.

It was tough a few years later when Elizabeth Shoaf went missing and turned out to have been held in an underground bunker for 10 days. It was tough at her captor’s trial a year later, and a month or so after that when I interviewed Shoaf and her family about her ordeal.

It was tough when officers arrested an Elgin man in connection with Gabbiee Swainson’s disappearance and really tough when, a year later, that man led authorities to her 6-foot deep grave just outside the Elgin town limits.

There have been other cases. Briana’s is proving to be just as tough, too.

The idea of someone killing an 18-year-old woman who, by every account we could find to print and others I’ve seen online, was so full of life -- “spunk,” as one person put it -- just makes me well... angry and sad, I’m honest enough to say.

But, no matter how angry and sad I get, as the editor of this newspaper, I can’t let that get in the way of quality, balanced journalism that you have not only come to expect, but that the entire community deserves.

The stories we write sometimes make you laugh, cry, or shake your fist. Believe me, we respond the same way. But, on our front page, it’s not us that’s expressing those emotions, it’s the people we interview, like the friends and teachers we spoke to for one of Friday’s stories.

I like to say that our mission is to tell the stories of Kershaw County. Some of us at the C-I live here; obviously, we all work here. So, as much as I’d like to say these are your stories, they’re really ours.

Still, we have to maintain some level of objectivity. I don’t really like that word. As I’ve often pointed out, we’re human beings -- we can’t be objective. What we have to be is fair. For stories like Briana’s, however, we do have to remove ourselves just that bit more in order not to muddy the waters.

That’s why so many of our stories rely strictly on official information from official sources: law enforcement, government leaders, heads of companies or civic groups.

Sometimes, though, we rely on you to tell the story. We may interview you, or you may write or call us. However a story is told here in the pages of the C-I it really is everyone’s story.

That is no different when it comes to Briana. Her murder affects us all, on some level. It pains, frightens, enrages or saddens us. That, too, is part of the story.

We hope, as the case against Kelly unfolds, that you find our coverage of it to be what you expect from the Chronicle-Independent: high quality, in-depth, thorough and -- above all -- not sensational or salacious.

This is serious business. And, as we celebrate Briana’s life, we will not stop calling, interviewing and writing the truth about what happened to her.

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