By Louis C. Hochman
Originally published in the Kent County Daily Times · March 29, 2007
We at the Daily Times often have to make tough calls about sensitive issues. That’s been the case with the deaths of two West Warwick teens, Darien Plass and Andrew Coit, a story our Kent County edition has been following since the twin tragedies happened over the course of a single night last weekend.
It’s not an easy thing balancing newsworthiness — the value of important information to our readers — against our desire to respect those most affected by tragedies. Put any 10 intelligent, thoughtful people into a room and you’ll come back with 10 different responses about where the line between the public’s right to know and the subject’s right to dignity is drawn. There’s a wide grey area, and a lot of room for meaningful debate.
Over the last two days, we’ve fielded several telephone calls from people upset or even disgusted by our choice to print a picture of 14-year-old Darien Plass drinking with friends. We’ve told callers we not only respect, but share their concern about the appropriateness of the image; it ran because we’d have an even more pressing concern about glossing over an important part of the story of Darien’s death. His lost his life after drinking, taking his mother’s car for a joyride, and crashing it into a pole down the street from his house.
This week, several of our staffers have met members of Darien’s family, and many of his friends. By all accounts, he was a loving teen who valued his family, and showed great affection for the people close to him. The roadside memorial that honors both Darien and Andrew is a tribute that shows what a tremendous impact both teens had on those around them. It’s clear Darien touched many people, and it will take a long time for those who knew him to move past this horrible, horrible loss.
But Darien, like a lot of teens, made some foolish and short-sighted choices. He and many of his friends drank, and not infrequently, according to accounts by some of those close to him. The picture we ran is from his Myspace Web page, where he and others can be seen in several shots with alcohol in their hands. What’s particularly troubling is that even in the days after his death, many of Darien’s friends only say they’ve been awakened to the real dangers of drinking and driving; few of those well-under-21 friends say much about giving up drinking in general.
Darien was far from alone in that sort of activity – it’s far, far too common among high-schoolers and even those years younger. And we’re not laying the blame at his family’s feet. We don’t know what sort of discipline or environment his mother provided, but we do certainly know that there’s only so much a parent can do when a teen is determined to break the rules; a parent simply can’t watch a child 24-7.
But Darien’s choice to drink was a direct factor in his death, one we certainly can’t ignore when discussing the circumstances around his crash.
Is the picture on the front page of Tuesday’s Kent County Daily Times disturbing? Absolutely. We only hope it’s disturbing enough that those who make the same bad choices Darien did will be as shocked as we were by the image – and learn from it. Darien never got the chance to grow out of the behavior that killed him. We hope we’re not saying the same about another local teen for a very, very long time.