A critical look at the beachhouse fire coverage



It's been over a week since a beachfire house fire in North Carolina claimed the life of seven college students, including Cassidy Pendley of North Charleston. Yes, the event is still fresh in the hearts of many, but for others, especially those who significantly removed from the event and persons involved, the time may have arrived when we can look at the coverage of the event with something of a critical eye.

While some may look back at the coverage of the tragedy and focus on the bombastic way that television approaches the event — as if it was all an ad for the latest summer blockbuster from director Michael Bay — that's not what, in this case at least, what really stands out to me. After reading numerous accounts of the tragedy, in particular Tripp Wylie's escape from the fire, it appeared that one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the story centered around Pendley and her current boyfriend Tripp Wylie who escaped from the fire.

Yes, the Post & Courier may pat themselves on the back for interviewing Pendley's former boyfriend, high school quarterback Reid McCollum, but he and Pendley were no longer dating; in fact, she had moved on, and by some accounts, very quickly. And as a result, the P&C report carried with it a certain feeling that the paper was doing its best to extend the news cycle of the tragedy and to further assert the Lowcountry's connection to the tragedy. It was all a bit too much. It felt manufactured:

They were Summerville's teenage golden couple — the star quarterback and the spirited cheerleader.

Reid McCollum and Cassidy Pendley attended rival schools, but that didn't stop them from becoming high school sweethearts. McCollum said some of his Summerville Green Wave teammates would tease him about dating the enemy, until they met Pendley.

"It only took one time for them to meet her and to see how beautiful she was," McCollum said. "Then they understood exactly why we were together."...

Her death left McCollum crushed, even though the couple decided to take a break from their relationship when she began college at the University of South Carolina this fall. McCollum said the two still spoke on the phone and saw each other when Pendley returned to the Lowcountry on weekends.

"We knew how we felt about each other," McCollum said. "We knew we'd end up back together eventually."

I don't know about you, but it just seems exploitative ... and desperate.

Which brings us to the coverage of Tripp Wylie's escape.

Numerous TV outlets ran interview with Wylie, including WSPA in Spartanburg, The Early Show on CBS, and the Today show on NBC. But while each of those accounts gives viewers an understanding of some of the circumstances surrounding Wylie's escape and his thoughts at the time, they offer a incomplete understanding of just how tragic his escape was. His girlfriend Cassidy Pendley was near him, most likely in the same room with him, when Tripp jumped. While some reports fail to mention that Cassidy and Tripp were boyfriend and girlfriend, nearly all of them fail to report that Tripp didn't just jump out of the window but he urged Cassidy to do so before and after he jumped.

Here's what Wylie had to say to WCBD:

It all ended when Wylie woke up to an inferno. He said, "I just woke up, and opened up the door, and you could just hear the popping from the fire and the smoke pouring in."

Wylie said 13 students were inside the house. He said five students slept on the first floor of the home, which stood at least 12 feet above the ground on stilts. They all made it out alive. Yet, eight students, including Wylie and Pendley, were on the second floor. Wylie said, "I pulled the blinds off the window and kinda kicked in the window."

Wylie says he asked Pendley, an engineering student, to follow him. He said, "I could see a buddy of mine off to the left who'd gotten out and just yelling at me to jump and stuff." Wylie says he couldn't breathe, so he jumped. "I landed in the water and my feet barely scraped the concrete where the barnacles were," Wiley said. He says he screamed and begged for Pendley to jump, but she never did.

Another report from WIS in Columbia offers a little bit more insight, told by Tim Burns, a newspaper delivery man who attempted to rescue some of the students:

"I came back down to see what was happening with him. He had actually jumped in that meantime. He was coming up out of the water. He was screaming a young lady's name."

"The impression I got from the way he was screaming at the window, that she must have been behind him, but she never made it to the window."

Now what this post highlights is not that there was some agenda here (oh no, two college kids may have been sleeping in the same room) or that one of these news organizations was incompetent (Cassidy was who's girffriend?), it's how it's important for viewers and readers to not rely on one news organization for all of their news. Newsgathering is tough business where sometimes bits and pieces are gathered to form an entire story. But the truth is, sometimes significant details can be left out.

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