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April 23, 2007

Using the Dead for Publicity

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting that left 33 people dead, media outlets from around the country scrambled to bring their viewers and readers a local angle to the tragedy. In central Kentucky, this grief was personified by Laura Crews, who approached reporters at a candlelight vigil and sobbingly told them that her friend Mike Patterson was shot in the thigh and still in the hospital. It turns out that this was a hoax.

The woman, who used the names Laura Megee (to WTVQ-TV) and Sara McMillian (to the Lexington Herald-Reader), spent time in jail last year for falsely claiming that she was abducted and raped (KBMC-TV).

Here's how the Herald-Leader originally quoted her:
At UK, Sara McMillian, a freshman from Durham, Va., said she planned to attend Virginia Tech, but God told her not to. McMillian said that when she heard about the shootings, she couldn't help but cry. One of her best friends was shot and will undergo surgery, but he'll be OK, she said. "We're gonna stick together through this," she said of her community and friends.

You can see parts of Crews' original statement to TV stations on a video at KMBC-TV.

There was no Mike Patterson involved in the shootings. The only person of that name even remotely related to the story is the guy who runs MyDeathSpace, a site that collects the MySpace pages of the recently deceased. He recently wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post about the purpose of his site for mourners of the Virginia Tech shootings.

While the TV stations and newspapers involved should probably have done a bit more research about their interview subject—and perhaps focused their reporting on other subjects besides tangentially related human-interest stories—there is little they could have done to prevent the weird and disturbing hoax. Perhaps fittingly, an editorial error on WTVQ's website earlier Monday rendered the caption for a picture of Crews as, "There is no description for this image."

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