News+Opinion » Chris Haire

Lust for Localization

Why did some news outlets ignore the connection between Cassidy Pendley and Tripp Wylie?

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It's been over a week since a beach house fire in North Carolina claimed the lives 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 are significantly removed from the event and the people involved, the time may have arrived when we can look at the coverage of the event with something of a critical eye.

Some may look back at the news reports on the fire and focus on the way that television approaches tragic events, as if it was all an ad for the latest summer blockbuster from director Michael Bay or a two-hour made-for-TV weepy from the folks at Hallmark. But in this case, what seems to stand out is not TV's tendency to make tears flow and hearts pound. Nope. Instead, it's what some media outlets failed to report.

Consider The Post & Courier's reports on the tragedy. The main focus of nearly every report centered in some way around Pendley, a former Fort Dorchester High School student. And this is to be expected considering the way that news organizations have a tendency to localize whatever is the big national story that day. In this instance, there was no need to search for someone who once knew someone who had a brother who married a girl who contracted MRSA at the roller rink. The local angle was right there ready to be written about ... in article after article after article.

But in their apparent lust to further localize the tragedy — and to extend the shelf life of the beach house fire no doubt — the P&C decided to run a big story on Pendley's high school sweetheart, star quarterback Reid McCollum. But here's the thing: Pendley and McCollum were no longer dating, a fact that the paper reports, albeit with something of a caveat: according to the Charleston daily, the former couple still saw each other on some weekends and McCollum himself stated they both envisioned getting back together. That said, according to other accounts, Pendley had moved on.

As it turns out, her new boyfriend was a guy named Tripp Wylie, a recent grad of J.L. Mann in Greenville. (Three Mann students died in the fire, including Wylie's former girlfriend and two close friends.) Wylie, as you may know, escaped the beach house fire by leaping out of a third story window. In the days that followed the tragedy, a clearly in-shock Wylie appeared on numerous TV news programs, including The Early Show and Today. And not surprisingly, he has been the focus of several stories in The Greenville News.

While few reports mention the connection between Wylie and Pendley, even fewer mention what may have transpired in the final moments the two were together. According to both Charleston's WCBD, WIS in Columbia, and Today, Wylie had urged Pendley to leap from the third floor window after he jumped to safety, but apparently the girl was either unable to do so or refused to jump. Either way, it's tragic.

Of course, this is old news. It was reported Tues., Oct. 30, by WCBD and Today, a full day before the P&C ran it's report on McCollum. But even in follow up articles by The Greenville News and The Post & Courier, including yesterday's report on the memorial service for Pendley, no mention, at least none based on a thorough review of online articles, is made of these facts.

The question, of course, is why?

Some might say there's an agenda here either to avoid the salacious (oh no, two college kids may have been sleeping in the same room) while others might say these news organizations were reluctant to report news they didn't break. However, it may be that in focusing on a local angle (former J.L. Mann student escapes, Fort Dorchester alum dies) these media outlets omitted important — and tragic — details about the fire.

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