John Keilman

It was the kind of story reporters do all the time: Something terrible happened, the police investigated and I wrote about what they found.

That was the end of it. For me, anyway.

But sometimes in this business we are reminded of the long shadows our stories can cast and the pain they can inadvertently cause. At a time when journalists are rethinking old practices, I thought I should take a second look at what I wrote.

The story involved a 19-year-old Wheaton College student named Ethan Roser, who was volunteering at a track and field meet in 2017. He was working the hammer throw, which, if you’ve never seen it, involves athletes whirling a 16-pound metal sphere attached to a handle by a wire. They let go of the handle and the hammer flies away, traveling 100 feet or more.

Ethan was working with a few buddies, and their job was to retrieve the hammers and return them to the throwers. But during warmups, one throw went awry, sailing beyond the boundaries of the field. The hammer struck Ethan in the head, killing him.

I wasn’t involved in the initial story about the accident, but I followed up because I wanted to know how an extracurricular activity could end in death. I tried speaking with college officials, but they weren’t talking. I sought out experts on track and field safety. And most importantly, I asked for the police report.

That is the default source of information for journalists trying to get to the bottom of a tragedy. Cops usually get to the scene first, and witnesses are often more willing to speak to them than to reporters. We give a lot of credibility to what police say — sometimes too much.

But in this case, witness after witness told Wheaton police the same story: Though Ethan and the other volunteers had been told to pay constant attention to the throwers, Ethan was watching his pals goof around when the fateful hammer was released.

A detective confirmed that account, and while my story mentioned other factors potentially at play in the accident, I compressed the news into a headline: “Police: Inattention cost Wheaton College hammer throw victim his life.”

When the story went online, I heard right away that the family was unhappy with the wording, believing it made Ethan out to be the author of his own demise. I looked over the report again, checked back with the detective and, in consultation with my editor, held firm. The headline was accurate.

It wasn’t until last month, nearly four years after my story ran on page 8 of the Tribune, that I understood the full impact of that decision.

Roser’s father, Mark, a Christian missionary who lives near Cincinnati, recently published a book titled “Blindsided” about the accident and its aftermath. He writes about his son’s early upbringing in Zimbabwe, his love of soccer and the determination to become a minister that led him to Wheaton College.

He also writes about how that headline — my headline — tormented him, especially after wire services picked up the story.

“More articles than I dare read are coming up on my screen blaming Ethan,” he writes. “The initial reports spoke of Ethan’s faith in Christ and his wholesome character, and now a lie presents him as an irresponsible person, and they broadcast this lie all over the world.

“Our son’s life was violently taken and then he gets blamed. What parent would allow that?”

That was tough to read. I thought the headline was explanatory, not judgmental. To me, it’s no blemish on anyone’s integrity to be distracted, especially not a college kid who was nice enough to volunteer his time so other students could pursue the sport they loved.

And besides, the story beneath the headline made clear that Ethan was standing in a spot that seemed to be safe, and that an expert believed the throwing cage, designed to prevent hammers from going off course, was inadequate.

But I know most people don’t read past the headline. Correct as they might have been, the words I chose were perhaps too stark, isolating one factor when others also played a role.

I swallowed hard and called Mark Roser, who told me why he thought the headline impugned his son.

“Here’s a kid who never got in trouble with the authorities when he’s driving,” he said. “He’s never had a moving violation or a parking violation. He’s been in supervised sports and activities from the time he was small. He knows how to follow instructions.

“Sure, he enjoys his friends. He has a fun-loving side. To me, to make that the reason of the accident is to blame someone who’s a victim and not deal with some of the deeper issues.”

Those issues, he said, include the cage, the safety of the area where volunteers were supposed to stand, the qualifications of officials overseeing the event and the lack of an audible signal that a hammer was about to be thrown.

He has sued the NCAA to address what he sees as the problems around the event. The case, filed in DuPage County, is still ongoing.

As for the headline, I could have made it less snappy and more empathetic — maybe something like, “Police say hammer throw victim was distracted, but experts raise other questions” — but I can’t change it now. I apologized to Mark Roser for the hurt it caused, and he graciously accepted.

He said his family has been helped through grief by their faith, and that time has eased his anger. He wanted to be transparent about his emotions in the book, and I’m glad he did.

Journalists should always remember words have power. It’s our obligation to choose them wisely.

Chicago Tribune reporter John Keilman can be reached at and on Twitter @JohnKeilman. ©2021 the Chicago Tribune Visit the Chicago Tribune at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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