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Inside the newsroom: The cost and benefit of covering Lauren McCluskey’s story

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Matt and Jill McCluskey look at pictures of their daughter Lauren on Friday, May 24, 2019, at their home in Pullman, Wash. Lauren McCluskey was murdered in October of 2018 on the University of Utah campus.

FILE - Matt and Jill McCluskey look at pictures of their daughter Lauren on Friday, May 24, 2019, at their home in Pullman, Wash. Lauren was murdered in October of 2018 on the University of Utah campus.

Geoff Crimmins, For the Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — It was the day before Mother's Day when Deseret News reporter Gillian Friedman arrived at the Pullman, Washington, home of Jill and Matt McCluskey, the parents of University of Utah track star Lauren McCluskey, who died last year at the hands of her former boyfriend.

"Track star" was just one identifier of Lauren, albeit a big part, as evidenced by her childhood home that retains the ribbons, medals and pictures associated with coming first across a finish line. Our reporter was here as an invited guest, having worked over weeks with the family to learn more about Lauren and the events that led up to her tragic death.

The facts of the story have been chronicled in the Deseret News, including challenges to the police department's response. What wasn't really understood was how could this happen? Why did this happen? And from that, can we build understanding to prevent it from happening again?

To truly understand and get the answers to those questions one needs to know Lauren, and through the graciousness of her family and from days and weeks poring over police records, timelines and the failures that led to her death, new understanding is revealed in the profile of Lauren’s life and the circumstances of her death.

"I was sincerely interested in understanding who Lauren was, not just as the victim of a terrible tragedy … reduced to a murder victim but as a whole person," said Gillian, as we discussed the story in the newsroom this week and the public's reaction to it.

"By understanding who Lauren really was we could show the world what was truly lost when she was murdered and why it was so significant that she reached out so many times for help and didn't get it."

That's the answer to the question why we write about such crimes. There is a journalistic watchdog role, challenging the failures of the police department and the university. But such stories often land in processes and procedures. That's important, but there is a bigger question to unravel: Why isn't the word of a woman taken seriously? #MeToo was born from frustration about imbalance of power, and from the reality that victims' complaints and concerns go unheard. And in that reality, fear prevents women from coming forward.

Lauren's story is another sad chapter and there are subtleties in the story that reveal so much. Some have (wrongly) accused her of "risky" behavior. But she behaved like most 21-year-olds: meeting a person who showed interest in her, giving him her number and seeing him.

When she learned he wasn't who he said he was, she tried to extricate herself from the relationship. But her boyfriend manipulated her and abused her. Lauren's lack of experience with dating perhaps got her into the relationship. Yet she was strong enough to try and get out. Police and the university and the lack of urgency in their response to her contributed to this terrible outcome.

Five years ago both the state of Utah and Salt Lake City came under fire for their backlog of hundreds and hundreds of rape kits. The state is still working on its backlog. Salt Lake City completed processing its 10-year backlog of 768 kits last summer, according to a reportby Deseret News reporter Katie McKellar.

It took public disclosure and acts by both entities to work on the problem. That dealt with process and procedure — more money and more staff were needed. But the real problem wasn't money or staff. It was a lack of respect for the victims of these crimes. Why such a low priority for helping women?

As our reporter wrote May 7, quoting a report on the issue: "New policies and training aimed at changing police response to focus on the victim was a needed change to our response to sexual assault victims."

One reader emailed me this week discouraged at the front pages of the Deseret News. She wrote:

I am a longtime reader of the paper.

I am also fed up with the long-term reporting of horrible crimes in the Deseret News. Lauren McCluskey, Susan Powell, how long are you going to keep throwing these horrific stories in our faces?

I sympathize with the difficulty reading about tragic stories. The day before our story appeared in print detailing the life and circumstances of Lauren's death, we wrote about the horrifying death of 5-year-old Elizabeth "Lizzy" Shelley, who had been missing for days in Logan. The arrest of her uncle led to the discovery of her body.

It's as difficult for our reporters to report on as it is for readers to read. The layout artist in our newsroom who put Page 1 together this week was in tears as she expressed hope that such a death of a child will stop happening.

Lauren's story has an equally strong effect on our staff. But there is a greater good in trying to find lessons and be better people.

"I don't think her story has any lessons to share about how to be more careful. … I think it has everything to do with the fact that Lauren is very much like yourself or many many people you know," Gillian said.

"We live in a society where women who are trying to protect themselves and do everything right to escape are still ignored and still dismissed."

That day in Washington as Gillian sat with Lauren's parents at their dining room table, she asked about the proximity of Mother's Day and the tender feelings it must generate. Lauren's mother's response was telling and concluded Gillian's article on their beautiful daughter:

“I think I miss her every day,” Jill McCluskey says. “So I don’t know that Mother's Day is much different.”