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Taking grief over the top

Saturday, December 08, 2012 - Updated: 6:31 PM

The story of two Shenendehowa High School student-athletes killed in a Northway auto accident last weekend has dominated capital region headlines for a week. It's an unspeakable tragedy; one that naturally shakes a community to its core.

The treatment of the deaths of Chris Stewart and Deanna Rivers is beyond ridiculous, though, and it does a disservice to all other young people who have had their lives cut short, regardless of the reason why.

On Tuesday, Shen's Brent T. Steuerwald Stadium was packed with people attending a candlelight vigil for the two teens. It's not surprising, and it's understandable. By all accounts, Stewart and Rivers were well-liked, and many of the students at the school need a way to mourn the loss of their friends and support each other during this crisis.

Was the vigil worth cable TV news channel YNN interrupting its regular programming to air the entire 90-minute event? Not by a long shot.

We usually have the station on in the newsroom as a way to keep up with what's happening around the region, so those of us in the office Tuesday were able to witness the events at Shen. As the vigil coverage continued, I couldn't help but wonder a couple of things.

Would there have been this much coverage had the accident victims been shop students instead of athletes? Or if the victims were a couple of black kids in Schenectady or Albany gunned down in acts of violence?

Or two teenagers from Amsterdam found shot to death in a rural area just outside the city limits? Vigils and memorials took place to mourn the deaths of Paul Damphier and Jonathan DeJesus, but there was no wall-to-wall coverage of those events. They were barely worth a mention in other media outlets that claim to cover this area but struggle to find Locust Avenue on a map and only deign to make an appearance out this way when something awful happens.

There were no efforts to get national sports figures like New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow or Olympic swimmer Missy Franklin to call the families of these apparent homicide victims. Carrie Underwood didn't dedicate any songs in their memory, like she was reported to have done during a concert Tuesday at the Times Union Center.

Why? Because the victims of regular violence in Albany and Schenectady may not be football stars? Because the Amsterdam teenagers who died in an equally horrible fashion weren't softball pitchers? What makes the Shen students any more important or special than any other teenager who dies in a horrible car wreck or by some other means?

Unfortunately, tragedies like this happen all too often, but they do happen. It's good to see people band together and support each other in times of grief, like what's happened in the suburban Albany communities this past week.

It's the celebrity treatment that's way over the top. It's 90 minutes of cameras zooming in on the grief-stricken faces of crying teenagers that frankly does little more than exploit a tragic situation.

And it sends a terrible message to every other family and community that has coped with terrible incidents such as this: If you're a kid from a poorer and more rural community who flies under the radar or can't put a leather ball through an iron hoop, you're worth a blip on the evening news. If you're a popular athlete from a wealthier suburban school, you get the Princess Diana treatment.

It also creates a caste system in our communities and schools that no one can seem to break. People, especially young ones, naturally establish pecking orders in social situations, but reactions such as the one in Clifton Park only serve to widen the gap between the popular and not-so-popular kids. It encourages certain groups of youths to thumb their noses at others, or worse, bully groups of teenagers who don't excel at athletics and aren't going to be as popular in school hallways.

Two teenagers are dead through no fault of their own. It's every parent's worst nightmare, and it's a horrible situation that no family or community should have to deal with. But it happens. The celebrity treatment of this tragedy cheapens the grieving process and the memories of Chris Stewart and Deanna Rivers.

It's also an insult to families and communities who don't get the same attention and outpouring of support when their kids die.


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