News

What a Week: Reporting on the unfathomable

DUSD Trustee Catherine Kuo, who died after a car crash at Fallon Middle School on March 24, is seen here the night before her death as she participated in the school board's first in-person meeting since the pandemic began. Her shocking death rocked Dublin and all of the Tri-Valley. (Photo courtesy of DUSD)

Like many others throughout the Tri-Valley, I continue to try to process the horrific news that absolutely floored us all one week ago: There was a fatal traffic collision at Fallon Middle School, and the victim was Dublin Unified School District Trustee Catherine Kuo.

Catherine Kuo. (Photo courtesy of DUSD)

I had to read the press release a second time. Then a triple take. What happened? How does that even happen? Oh no, and the initial details were just horribly sad -- pinned between two vehicles, after an apparent inadvertent acceleration, while at a volunteer event; an elected leader and married mother of two gone just like that.

Then, as trained, I flipped my professional switch into breaking news mode. I had to take the lead on reporting that night since the police statement came out after-hours March 24.

Unfortunately, I'm very familiar with coverage of untimely deaths, public deaths or noteworthy deaths.

Each is terrible to have to cover, but I take pride in that the community looks to us to report these stories. It's an important journalistic responsibility -- and I'm adept at it. Something about the critical-thinking, interviews and research necessary to accurately and respectfully describe what occurred and who was affected just speaks to me.

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But Catherine Kuo's death was different to cover that night. It remains so.

Hers was a rare convergence of all three types of newsworthy deaths I described. We so seldom see that here at the Weekly, but that makes the initial story -- all of the Kuo stories -- all the more important and impactful for local readers.

Personally for the reporter, too.

In this case, we were professional acquaintances. I wouldn't say I knew Kuo personally much if at all, but we'd conversed several times about DUSD issues during her 16 months on the board. I had her number in my phone. And I'm not the only one on our small staff.

As I told my team, as well as several sources close to Kuo, after the news arrived: "Catherine was very accommodating and thoughtful when interacting with our reporters and myself. I always appreciated her openness and honesty. Just devastating."

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Reporting on someone's death leaves an imprint on me, regardless of whether I'd ever met them. The impact is that much more when I've interacted with them.

And it's important to acknowledge -- sure, from a personal perspective to process potential emotions, but more importantly for reporters, in a professional sense because it helps us better understand who to talk to and what questions to ask to paint the best picture in prose we can. We shouldn't strive to be unbiased robot journalists; our minds and our hearts play an important role too.

Beyond that, this story will always stick out because of how truly unfathomable it is.

I mean, dozens (maybe hundreds) have worked or volunteered to distribute food at school sites in Dublin during this pandemic. To have somebody killed in a car crash while volunteering at a campus is hard enough to imagine, but for that victim to be a well-respected member of the school board is almost incomprehensible.

The loss is far-reaching, and the circumstances beg so many questions still unanswered.

Dublin Police Services investigators are rightfully taking ample time, doing their due diligence, to determine the probable cause or leading factors in the crash. I urge readers to limit speculation in public forums. I know it's human nature -- curiosity, imagination are among the reasons I'm drawn to journalism -- but throwing out idea after idea offers little help at this stage.

I've been inquiring whether police have ruled out or ruled in any potential cause, but so far only intentional act and auto-pilot malfunction are off the table.

"Our traffic unit continues to investigate in hopes of answering the ultimate question of 'how did this happen.' We are hoping the investigation will be complete by next week," Schmidt told me this Wednesday. "At this point, there does not appear to be anything criminal in nature and the driver of the vehicle continues to be completely cooperative with the investigation."

We'll be there to ask these questions to make sure the community finds out all it can about what happened at Fallon around 11:45 a.m. March 24, why it happened and what lessons can be learned for our own lives to prevent such "tragic accidents."

Also, when the time is appropriate, we'll be ready to track the public process for selecting Kuo's successor on the board and the implications of that process on local school politics during what had already been another critical juncture for DUSD.

You can never really replace someone like Kuo, someone truly beloved in her community -- judging by the outpouring of public grief and loving remembrances from local leaders and everyday residents alike. Seeing what her husband, sister and supporters all said during Sunday night's candlelight vigil was heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time.

Catherine Kuo, a life well-lived.

Editor's note: Jeremy Walsh has been the editor of the Pleasanton Weekly since February 2017. His "What a Week" column runs on the first and third Fridays of the month.

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What a Week: Reporting on the unfathomable

by / Danville San Ramon

Uploaded: Thu, Apr 1, 2021, 1:54 pm

Like many others throughout the Tri-Valley, I continue to try to process the horrific news that absolutely floored us all one week ago: There was a fatal traffic collision at Fallon Middle School, and the victim was Dublin Unified School District Trustee Catherine Kuo.

I had to read the press release a second time. Then a triple take. What happened? How does that even happen? Oh no, and the initial details were just horribly sad -- pinned between two vehicles, after an apparent inadvertent acceleration, while at a volunteer event; an elected leader and married mother of two gone just like that.

Then, as trained, I flipped my professional switch into breaking news mode. I had to take the lead on reporting that night since the police statement came out after-hours March 24.

Unfortunately, I'm very familiar with coverage of untimely deaths, public deaths or noteworthy deaths.

Each is terrible to have to cover, but I take pride in that the community looks to us to report these stories. It's an important journalistic responsibility -- and I'm adept at it. Something about the critical-thinking, interviews and research necessary to accurately and respectfully describe what occurred and who was affected just speaks to me.

But Catherine Kuo's death was different to cover that night. It remains so.

Hers was a rare convergence of all three types of newsworthy deaths I described. We so seldom see that here at the Weekly, but that makes the initial story -- all of the Kuo stories -- all the more important and impactful for local readers.

Personally for the reporter, too.

In this case, we were professional acquaintances. I wouldn't say I knew Kuo personally much if at all, but we'd conversed several times about DUSD issues during her 16 months on the board. I had her number in my phone. And I'm not the only one on our small staff.

As I told my team, as well as several sources close to Kuo, after the news arrived: "Catherine was very accommodating and thoughtful when interacting with our reporters and myself. I always appreciated her openness and honesty. Just devastating."

Reporting on someone's death leaves an imprint on me, regardless of whether I'd ever met them. The impact is that much more when I've interacted with them.

And it's important to acknowledge -- sure, from a personal perspective to process potential emotions, but more importantly for reporters, in a professional sense because it helps us better understand who to talk to and what questions to ask to paint the best picture in prose we can. We shouldn't strive to be unbiased robot journalists; our minds and our hearts play an important role too.

Beyond that, this story will always stick out because of how truly unfathomable it is.

I mean, dozens (maybe hundreds) have worked or volunteered to distribute food at school sites in Dublin during this pandemic. To have somebody killed in a car crash while volunteering at a campus is hard enough to imagine, but for that victim to be a well-respected member of the school board is almost incomprehensible.

The loss is far-reaching, and the circumstances beg so many questions still unanswered.

Dublin Police Services investigators are rightfully taking ample time, doing their due diligence, to determine the probable cause or leading factors in the crash. I urge readers to limit speculation in public forums. I know it's human nature -- curiosity, imagination are among the reasons I'm drawn to journalism -- but throwing out idea after idea offers little help at this stage.

I've been inquiring whether police have ruled out or ruled in any potential cause, but so far only intentional act and auto-pilot malfunction are off the table.

"Our traffic unit continues to investigate in hopes of answering the ultimate question of 'how did this happen.' We are hoping the investigation will be complete by next week," Schmidt told me this Wednesday. "At this point, there does not appear to be anything criminal in nature and the driver of the vehicle continues to be completely cooperative with the investigation."

We'll be there to ask these questions to make sure the community finds out all it can about what happened at Fallon around 11:45 a.m. March 24, why it happened and what lessons can be learned for our own lives to prevent such "tragic accidents."

Also, when the time is appropriate, we'll be ready to track the public process for selecting Kuo's successor on the board and the implications of that process on local school politics during what had already been another critical juncture for DUSD.

You can never really replace someone like Kuo, someone truly beloved in her community -- judging by the outpouring of public grief and loving remembrances from local leaders and everyday residents alike. Seeing what her husband, sister and supporters all said during Sunday night's candlelight vigil was heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time.

Catherine Kuo, a life well-lived.

Editor's note: Jeremy Walsh has been the editor of the Pleasanton Weekly since February 2017. His "What a Week" column runs on the first and third Fridays of the month.

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