Thursday, March 5, 2015

ALLEGED DRUNK DRIVER'S ACCIDENT WITH SCHOOL BUS LEAVES LOTS OF QUESTIONS FOR RIO GRANDE VALLEY MEDIA OUTLETS TO ANSWER

On the bottom right hand corner of Page 3B in this morning's edition of The Monitor in McAllen, Texas, and on the newspaper's website, www.themonitor.com, is a story that should be garnering a lot more local media attention than it apparently has so far.

The story involves Alexander Correa, 23, of Edinburg, one of McAllen's numerous neighboring cities, who, on Monday morning, plowed into the back of a school bus with, according to the newspaper report, 10 students on board. Fortunately, no students were injured.

If that was all there was to the story, it, frankly, wouldn't be all that big of a deal. Accidents in which there are no injuries, even ones involving school buses, happen everyday and most go without so much as a passing mention in the media.

But this accident was not that simple because police ended up arresting Correa on charges of driving while intoxicated -- his sixth such charge in less than two years, the paper reported. Here is the link to the story posted at 7:16 p.m. on Wednesday on The Monitor's website: http://www.themonitor.com/news/local/edinburg-man-gets-sixth-dwi-in-years-after-crashing-into/article_fd0f16f4-c2d5-11e4-85e7-177a259d7b63.html.

The story was reported earlier in the day by the area's English-language Fox affiliate TV station KXFV, which even had video of Correa's arraignment in Edinburg Municipal Court before Judge Terry Palacios. Here is a link to that report: http://www.foxrio2.com/repeat-drunk-driver-slams-into-bus-filled-with-middle-school-children/.

To their credit, The Monitor and KXFV were, as of 8:30 CST this morning (Thursday, Mar. 5, 2015), the only area news outlets reporting this story.

I suspect that by the end of the day, this could wind up being the news story that is the most talked about by Rio Grande Valley residence once the news departments at the area's other English-language TV stations -- KRGV, KGBT and KVEO -- finally get around to looking at The Monitor's Page 3B and KXFV's website and begin playing catch up.

I hope that all of the local media take out after this story the way they should and don't -- as is so often the case here and in far too many other communities around the nation -- just let it drop until Correa's trial, which may or may not be covered live by any of the local media outlets.

My old friend, Bill Marimow, editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, alerted me to a story his paper published in September that could serve as a great guide for Rio Grande Valley media to follow if they want to do a high impact followup story on this accident. The Inky story deals with Pennsylvania's pretty abysmal record for keeping repeat drunk drivers off the roads. Here is the link: http://www.philly.com/philly/news/20140907_Despite_tougher_Pa__DUI_laws__many_repeat_offenders_stay_on_the_road.html

Hopefully, The Monitor, or one or all of the TV stations, will very quickly follow up by giving the details of Correa's other five DWI cases, one of which was dismissed and the other four of which are yet to be adjudicated. The Monitor's and KXFV's reports mentioned the other cases but gave no details regarding when they occurred,  where they occurred, what was involved or where exactly they stand in the judicial process.

Beyond that, there are still many questions to be answered with regard to this incident, which I am still rather surprised was not played at least on the front of the Valley & State (B) section of The Monitor.

I think the question that will be most on the minds of those area residents who take note of the story is why in the world Correa, with five prior DWI arrests, continues to have driving privileges. That's an important question that must be put to the area law enforcement agencies that have arrested him and to the judges and prosecutors who are handling, or in the past have handled, the cases against him.

Jeff Allen Lindau, who commented on the story on The Monitor's website quite rightfully and fairly said, "the media could probably trace the reasons this person is still driving and hasn't been convicted on any of his previous 5 charges of DWI. The question is will they get to the bottom and expose it?"

In another comment on the story, Lindau said: "All one has to do is research DWI's in Hidalgo County and you'll see our county has one of the highest rates of DWI incidents with one of the state's lowest rates for prosecuting DWI offenders. The local media half heartedly has looked into these numbers in the past but never fully held the DA's office accountable." Although he is substantially correct, Lindau failed to mention that the area's judges who handle drunk driving cases should perhaps be held even more accountable than area prosecutors since, in the final analysis, it is up to them to determine the punishments handed out to first- and multiple-time DWI offenders.

Lindau is also on point with his offhanded bash at the local media for only "half heartedly" looking into the drunk-driving issue in the Rio Grande Valley, where it seems to be a serious problem considering the number stories on DWI accidents, many involving multiple injuries and fatalities, that are reported here every year by The Monitor and area TV stations.

As much as I hate to admit it, even I have to plead guilty to Lindau's charge of media half-hearted reporting on the area's drunk driving problem.

There were several times during my nearly 12 years as editor of The Monitor -- usually after a particularly horrendous DWI accident -- that I considered having my reporters launch a full-scale examination into how drunk driving cases are handled, or mishandled, in the Rio Grande Valley, but failed, for whatever excuse, to not follow up on.

In retrospect, I consider myself particularly remiss in not having done so since I had considerable experience with such projects at papers where I had previously worked. As the courts reporter for The Louisville (Ky.) Times in the early 70s I produced a several-day series of stories on lenient handling of DWI cases by judges in the area's municipal courts. As managing editor of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss.; and later The Cincinnati Post; and then as editor of The State Journal-Register, in Springfield, Ill., I directed examinations of how drunk-driving cases were handled by the courts and even identified the top 10 to 20 repeat DWI offenders in those cities. In fact, our drunk-driving series at The State Journal-Register resulted in me being invited to speak at that year's national convention of Mother Against Drunk Driving (MAAD) in Washington, D.C.

I urge my former area media colleagues to not follow my lead. Don't let this opportunity to take a serious look at how the many drunk driving cases are handled by the judicial systems in the Rio Grande Valley. Let this case be the impetus for an in-depth look into the issue by one or all of our area media outlets because lives are at stake and law enforcement, prosecutorial and judicial feet should and must be held to the fire and repeat offenders, in particular, need to be exposed and prevented from killing themselves and/or innocent potential victims.

Thanks to the expansion of computerized record keeping by area courts, the task should be much easier now than it was in the past, when reporters had to go through the tedious task of reviewing hundreds of pages of sometimes handwritten court dockets to identify and track such cases. That's the upside.

The downside is that due to the fees public agencies are allowed to collect under Texas law, accessing those records could cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars -- a factor that has put a serious crimp in investigative reporting by all but the state largest newspapers and television stations.

That considered The Monitor and one or more of the local TV stations might want to think about joining forces to not only devote the sort of reportorial resources need to produce a meaningful and game-changing examination of the issue, but also to share and defray the costs of the undertaking. As leery as I am of the concept (see my Feb. 13, 2015 post "NEWSPAPER ETHICS: MAINTAINING (OR NOT) THE LINE BETWEEN DOLLARS AND SENSE) this might just be one of those rare instances when one or more media outlets might consider seeking crowdfunding from readers and/or viewers to help finance a project that is -- or certainly should be -- a matter of significant public concern.

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