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Too often we forget names in headlines are real people

SHARE Too often we forget names in headlines are real people

More than 13 years have passed, yet I've been thinking a lot this week about the day Carol Spencer called wanting to know why no one cared about her daughter's murder. The lesson she gave seems especially relevant now.

I was a police reporter trying to keep up with the notable crimes in Las Vegas. To the paper that employed me, a notable crime was defined as something with an element of the spectacular or astonishing, something that raised alarm. Because there were so many outlandish crimes to choose from in the spring of 1984, I had been selective, choosing to write about only the ones that led to dramatic police manhunts or that involved a suspected serial killer.The death of Kim Spencer, Carol's 24-year-old daughter, didn't qualify. The details were gruesome enough. She had been stabbed to death with a steak knife, most notably in the hands and arms as she had tried to fend off her attacker. Finally, she had stumbled out of her third-floor apartment and collapsed on the landing, where a neighbor found her, too late to save her life.

But the murder had been easy to solve. Police knew the killer was a close friend because Kim, afraid to live alone in a bad neighborhood, had devised a secret, rhythmic knock. She never let anyone into her apartment, not even her mother, unless they pounded out the rhythm with their knuckles. And only a few people knew the signal. Police quickly narrowed the search to an ex-roommate of Kim's boyfriend.

With none of the authorities giving any special attention to the case, and with plenty of other murders to concentrate on, I gave the story a couple of paragraphs and moved on.

But that was difficult to explain to Carol, who wanted to know why the sudden death of her child was not as big a community tragedy as other killings.

Publicity and sensationalism have been hotly debated in the wake of the tragic death of Britain's Princess Diana, who was laid to rest yesterday. The truth is that sometimes a fine line separates useful information from harmful curiosity. As humans, we crave information about the world around us. By learning of the triumphs and tragedies of others, we develop the empathy that defines communities and binds people together with common hopes and concerns. We develop an awareness of the need for changes and of opportunities to provide charity.

The paparazzi and their tabloid editors take this common bond and twist it into a perverted voyeurism.

But that isn't the lesson I learned from Carol Spencer. What I learned came later, after the phone call, when I went to visit her in her modest apartment.

Carol didn't get around easily. She suffered from muscular dystrophy and nerve problems. She spent most of her days struggling to knit, making pillows and outfits for little dolls.

She told me how her husband had walked out on the family four years earlier and how Kim had become her strength. Even as a teenager, Kim had chosen to take care of her mother rather than be with her friends.

Carol remembered one day in particular when her illnesses and depression seemed to cover her like a blanket. Kim had coaxed her with reverse psychology, teasingly telling her she couldn't get out of bed, couldn't walk and, by all means, couldn't drive the car. Kim got her mother so angry she ended up walking to the car and driving around the block just to prove her daughter wrong, only later realizing what she had accomplished. Ever since, Carol had a confidence that helped her through the hard times. It made for a beautiful story that breathed life into a faceless tragedy.

At the end of the interview, Carol gave me two little dolls, a boy and a girl, dressed in outfits she had knitted. I was taken aback. Reporters don't accept gifts, but somehow it didn't seem right to refuse this time.

Since then, whenever I look at the plastic faces of those dolls I am reminded that the names we see in each day's headlines are real people, with feelings of joy and pain. Like the paparazzi, too many of us reduce newsmakers to paper cutouts, distancing ourselves through jokes on late-night talk shows and with instant judgments that require less thought than deciding what to wear each day. People in the news are different from us, defined only in terms of the events that have thrust them into our view.

Carol Spencer taught me differently. Her lesson is one everyone should learn.