Wrong-way crash was a tragedy for all — here’s an inside look at how we covered the story

The deadly crash that claimed two lives this week in San Luis Obispo was a tragedy in every possible way.

A Los Osos father driving to work early Wednesday morning on Highway 101 had no chance to react when a car going the wrong way slammed into him head on.

That was 43-year-old Anthony Au, who was headed to his job as a cook at the San Luis Obispo County Jail’s Honor Farm.

On the other side, a Cal Poly business student just days away from her graduation likely didn’t even realize what she’d done wrong until it was too late.

That was 22-year-old Nicole Scalone, and at the moment, we don’t know why she was where she was at that fateful moment.

What we do know is that two people with families who loved them and much life yet to live died suddenly, and nothing we say or do can reverse that.

Nevertheless, some readers have said we focused too much on Scalone and were “glorifying” her. She caused the crash, they said, and yet she was getting all the attention. Some even went so far as to call her names and jump to completely speculative conclusions.

How readers reacted

Most of the live feedback we hear on our work comes via the Tribune’s page on Facebook, where we post links to our stories throughout the day and night.

That’s where readers sounded off about what some thought was too much attention on Scalone or used language that treated it as a no-fault crash, even as we were doing our best to cover all the angles as they unfolded.

Oftentimes, we don’t always get it exactly right the first time. Sometimes, the ebb and flow of our reporting allows certain parts of the story to develop ahead of others.

When we are writing and editing breaking news over the course of many hours, stories change constantly, and we work to improve them steadily. Indeed, this day’s report began at 7 a.m. and required updating and editing as late as 10 p.m.

Along the way, we don’t have all the answers, and the sequences may seem puzzling. But it’s just the nature of the business that news doesn’t always come together tied up in a neat bow.

To set the record straight, I’d like to walk through how the story developed and why we covered it the way we did.

Word of the tragedy

We first learned about the crash when reporter Gabby Ferreira arrived Wednesday morning and did her overnight check for newsworthy items.

She wrote up the story based on reports from the CHP, who had jurisdiction over the crash.

At the time, the only details we had were that two people had died when a woman from Bellevue, Washington, driving south on northbound 101 hit a man from Los Osos.

In situations like this, law enforcement refrains from identifying the dead until next of kin can be notified. That rarely happens on the same day.

Sometimes, we’re able to determine who those people are via other sources, but we always step very carefully here, only publishing names when we are certain they are verified.

In this case, the identification process took a bit of a twist when Cal Poly sent an email to the campus community at 7:41 p.m. sharing the news that Scalone, a native of Bellevue, Washington, had died in a car crash.

Reporter Kaytlyn Leslie learned about her identity a short time later and wrote our second story of the day off of that email, which noted that Scalone was only days away from graduating.

On Thursday morning, still with only one ID, we assigned reporter Matt Fountain to find out more about Scalone. Over the course of the day, he talked to both her grandfather and brother in what are the most difficult calls a reporter ever has to make.

They shared details about her life and plans after college. We did not ask them to speculate about why she was driving the wrong way on the highway.

In the midst of that effort, at around 2 p.m., the CHP sent out a news release officially identifying both drivers.

Ferreira quickly wrote and published that story, including a comment from the Sheriff’s Office mourning Au’s death. We published it in time to lead our afternoon newsletter, which goes out at 4 p.m.

At that point, Leslie rejoined the reporting effort and began pursuing sources to tell us more about Au and who he was.

Fountain then finished his story on Scalone, and shortly after, Leslie added more to her story about Au after talking to his supervisor.

She then turned her attention to merging the two accounts for the newspaper, combining both angles and all the current information into one story for Friday’s front page.

Not the time for blame

As you can see, the process is fluid and frenetic, and all of the parts and pieces come together in sometimes unexpected ways.

That’s true of reporting the news in general, but it’s exacerbated when we’re dealing with a case as devastating as this.

To the casual observer, initial outrage may feel justifiable. You may want to condemn the 22-year-old Cal Poly student, but we truly don’t know right now why this tragedy occurred. To be sure, Scalone was in the wrong place driving in what proved to be a deadly fashion, but it’s irresponsible and unfair to speculate why at this point.

The simple fact is, two precious lives were lost, and two families have been plunged into unimaginable grief.

Please, keep them in your thoughts today. And if you are inclined to pass judgment, wait for another time.

Whoever or whatever is to blame, that is not what is needed now.

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Joe Tarica is the editor of The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. He’s worked in various newsroom roles since 1993, including as an award-winning copy editor, designer and writer of the Joetopia column. A California native, he has been a resident of San Luis Obispo County for more than three decades and is a Cal Poly graduate.