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We must think before we speak, Obama included

HAMBURG — Last Tuesday, someone struck Jennifer Martello while she took a nighttime walk down Big Tree Road. At this writing, her body is on life support at Erie County Medical Center, so that her organs can be harvested. Erie County Forensics experts are examining evidence found at the scene, but until an autopsy is conducted, there can be no official ruling on the cause of her death. Hamburg police say they are confident it was a hit-and-run, but that they cannot make that statement, just yet.

Apparently, Martello was taking a walk to clear her head, after losing out on a nursing home job opportunity. Her husband said she was headed to a nearby tavern for a drink, but she never made it more than a few hundred feet from their home. All in all, the case is still shrouded in mystery.

But we know this much: She left behind her husband Sam and her 14-month-old daughter Amelia. She liked the New York Yankees, the Knicks, the Sabres and the Bills. A graduate of Frontier High School, she liked romantic movies and oldies music. She was, by all accounts, a devoted mother and friend.

While digging for information about her death, I read many accounts of the accident on other news sites, scrolling through the comments to see what people were saying, looking for leads and, like many of us, looking for answers to what looks like a senseless accident.

Bright Eyes, one of my favorite bands, has a song lyric that runs through my head every time I read the comments section on websites: “I do not read the reviews. No, I am not singing for you.” Because the speculation that commenters write on these types of stories range from horrified to horrifying, and the amount of the latter disturbed me enough to write this column.

When a young woman dies suddenly, it is a tragedy. That much is indisputable. I won’t give the commenters the satisfaction of reprinting their messages here, but several people had accused Martello and her husband of illicit activities that may have led to her death, even going so far as to accuse Sam Martello of killing his wife. Many people have gone into great detail about the couple’s personal life, their extracurricular activities, the noise level at their apartment and more, even speculating about the manner in which Martello has chosen to share the information about his wife, his family and his grief. Whether or not he was involved and the reason for his words and actions are a concern for one group of people only: The police.

When a woman is dead, my natural instinct is to feel sorry for the woman, her family and her child. That someone else’s instinct is to concoct a salacious story that can (and does) quickly spiral into speculation about the dead and her associates is distressing, on a number of levels.

As a journalist, it’s my job to find out why events happen, to get the background story and the reason for tragedies such as these. But as a person, I can’t imagine printing libelous statements for the world to see, about a mother who was left to die at the side of the road like an animal unless I am absolutely sure who did it. That is why The Sun does not print unsubstantiated claims: There are humans behind every headline, and we want to be able to sleep at night knowing we did our best to be as accurate as we can.

Human nature is to look for a reason, when tragedy strikes. When Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 went down near the village of Grabovo in Ukraine, near the border with Russia, theories about how and why the plane crashed came out almost faster than official news.

Some said Flight MH370, which disappeared en route from Malaysia to China in March, was actually flight MH17, despite absolutely no evidence to support that theory. Both United States and Ukraine officials said they believe the plane was brought down by a missile, but no evidence has yet emerged to determine who shot it.

Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimin told the BBC that he had intercepted phone conversations proving pro-Russian separatists brought down the aircraft. Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed the Ukraine government and separatist leader Alexander Borodai agreed. Ukraine’s defense ministry denies involvement, saying there were no air force jets in the area and no surface-to-air systems being used against the rebels. That is all we know, so far.

America had yet to offer an official statement, by press time, and President Barack Obama has been criticized for staying quiet on the issue. People are calling him a coward, for not stepping up and speaking out against one side or the other, but I can see Obama’s point. I can also remember historic (and current) conflicts that may have been avoided, had an American head of state sat back and considered the facts before launching into a fight that wasn’t ours, in an attempt to look more powerful on the world stage. As Americans, many of us are so concerned with our image, we forget that all actions, especially brash ones, come with consequences more lasting than a negative review on a news talk show.

People are angry. They are angry because there is, as yet, so little information about why some 200 people lie in body bags, far away from home. It’s our human instinct to find reasons for tragedies such as this one, such as Martello’s mysterious death.

Conspiracy theories and ludicrous claims run rampant on the Internet because it’s our instinct to search for reasons bad things happen to good people, to our country, to us. But in this age of information overload, we must be careful what we say, and think about who can hear us. Obama has come under fire for keeping his own opinion out of the spotlight, but many of us forget what it means to think before we speak, to consider the impact of a statement before we type.

The Internet has made free speech too cheap. It’s easy to hide behind computer screens, to look at people as profile photos and usernames. It’s easy to engage in arguments about where we should send our armaments, where we should point our missiles, and who we should blame for the tragedy du jour.

But before posting a theory about who killed Martello, think about Sam at home with his baby, a single parent for a week, when this issue comes out. Think about how he must feel, reading about his late wife while his baby sleeps in the next room. Think about how he feels, when reading about himself.

Think about the families of those 295 people, who turned a Ukrainian field into a debris-littered graveyard. Think of their faces, as they wait for news of their loved ones and scour the Internet for information. Think of how they must feel, finding your conspiracies, your speculations, your calls for bloodshed in answer to bloodshed.

Behind every headline is a human being. It is our job, as journalists, to give you the news, but it is all of our responsibility as human beings to treat every subject, from the police blotter to the obituaries to the front page, with the respect that status deserves.

Every morning, I’ve woken up to read the news and look for updates on all the unsolved cases we’re following. The list seems to grow, by the day: Martello’s, Flight MH17 and Barry Moss, whose December 2013 death also remains unsolved. We cross one off that list far too seldom, and forget too soon that there are still families waiting for news, once the issue is no longer the hot topic of the day.

I read those updates and call police departments not only because it’s my job to share that news, but because it’s my responsibility as a human to get my information directly from the source.

As a person, I believe we all have certain inalienable rights: To read the truth about yourselves and others, whatever that truth may be.

Instead of criticizing our officials for waiting to speak, let’s think about what silence means, and how we can use it, both online and in person. Let’s think before we speak, and consider that maybe, a little forethought could make for a lot more civil conversation.

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2014-07-25 | 19:08:11
Think Before You Speak
Well done.
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