Thursday, June 8, 2006

Family and Friends Show Focus in Funeral

It had all the ingredients of a made-for-TV story. There was an unusual turn of events, and plenty of raw human emotion. And so news media from around the world, both broadcasters and print reporters, arrived in west Michigan to cover this compelling story, the funeral of Laura VanRyn.

You’ve no doubt heard the story yourself about VanRyn, of Caledonia, and her fellow college student Whitney Cerak, of Gaylord. The two Taylor University students were in an accident six weeks ago. At the time, officials declared the Cerak had died and that VanRyn had survived with serious brain and other injuries. For several weeks, families thought it was VanRyn at the Spectrum Health Brain Injury Center. Only recently did the truth emerge—officials had mistaken the identities of the two young women. VanRyn was the one who had passed away.

That mistake is what made all of this newsworthy for the media. This was little reporting about the original accident beyond the local and regional media where the two women lived and went to school. But this past weekend, reporters from CNN, the New York Times, People Magazine and many other national media outlets came to west Michigan to tell this story of mistaken identities, shock, and grief.

But the national media perhaps got a different story at the funeral.

Van Ryn’s father, Don, set the tone for a different story right away when he began the funeral by addressing the misidentification and that some people had encouraged them to file a lawsuit. Such a scenario could have easily been expected. One only has to watch cable TV coverage of various accidents and crimes to see the story drag out as a legal battle. But VanRyn put any notions of that to rest by speaking from his Christian perspective that Christ encourages us to forgive rather than to seek vengeance.

His perspective was followed and reinforced repeatedly. Laura’s siblings recalled her simple capacity for happiness. Her college roommates and friends shared her college sports and academic accomplishments. All of them spoke of her—and their own--faith in Jesus Christ, and what that means at a time like this. It was all very moving, as might be expected at a funeral. But it was all the more moving for the peaceful, positive flavor of the event.

It so happens that two of my friends and colleagues who are members of the West Michigan Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America responded to a request from Kentwood Community Church, where the funeral was held, to help handle the large number of reporters at the event. Neither felt the media were particularly surprised at the expressions of faith, since the family’s Web log (blog) about Laura had been publicized and included many spiritual themes. But both said it was interesting watching the media reaction to the event.

“It was interesting standing in the back of the media room and watching their reactions as speaker after speaker essentially preached the Gospel for an hour and a half,” said Bruce Schedlbauer, who normally handles communication for the Ford International Airport. “By watching their faces I could see a little curiosity and wonder at how the family and friends conducted themselves in the midst of this painful event.”

Overall, both of my friends said the media conducted themselves very well. Rather than exploit the occasion for a sensational story, as some criticize the media of doing, the reporters at the event respected the family’s wishes for privacy at a very personal moment. They also dealt with the faith aspect in different ways.

“I would say that there were different levels of sophistication when it came to how the service was covered,” recalls Phil DeHaan, who handles media relations at Calvin College. “Some media made only passing mention of the faith of the family; other outlets centered their coverage on the relationship the VanRyns have with their Lord and Savior.”

DeHaan notes that one station in Indianapolis actually read from the family’s blog, quoting Psalm 18 on the air. He also points out that the ABC reporter had attended a Christian college, and the People Magazine reporter had family in the area. So not all national media representatives find matters of faith to be foreign or beneath mention.

Beyond the media reaction, I wonder about the reactions of their viewers and readers across the country. At times when we do seem so consumed by news of violence, hatred, and revenge, I would hope that in comparison the testimony of the VanRyns and their faith community provides hope. It’s that difference that makes this story newsworthy to me.

In the end the story did have a turn of events and deep human emotion, but perhaps not what lots of people expected. A story that could have been about anger was instead about peace and forgiveness. The prospect of sudden anguish and doubt was overwhelmed by the peace flowing from a deep and long-held faith. An incident described as being about confusion at a time of death became a message about certainty in this life and the next.