There is a scene in the movie "Absence of Malice" where a woman steps out of her house at dawn and proceeds to pick up newspapers on the lawns of her neighbors.

It was a futile, but very human, moment.

I've often used that scenario when speaking to young reporters about the importance of personal responsibility. It poignantly illustrates the power of the pen, and that every time you write a story about somebody, you have their lives in your hands for the next 24 hours, if not longer.

While the news business can be very impersonal, there are times when it reminds you how personal it really is, how small the world is, and how closely we're connected to each other.

I was reminded of all that Wednesday afternoon as I sat with Lydia Keener, holding her hand, apologizing for something I had written in the newspaper the day before.

Fact and fiction

The column I wrote was about how a murder affected a suburban neighborhood where such events are rare.

It was about a homicide that occurred this month in the subdivision where I live. It was about the shock that goes through a neighborhood; how people react when violence presents itself in an otherwise nonviolent neighborhood. It was about the fear and the sense of vulnerability that creeps in when innocence is lost.

It accomplished that purpose, but went a step further and talked about the victim, Lydia's 49-year-old daughter, Kathryn, who was killed.

But as facts emerged, so did rumors. Sometimes it's hard to distinguish between the two.

It's one thing to write about issues that affect the community. It's another thing to look into the eyes of a family member who had to relive the event through your words.

As a group, we're not good at apologies. We dish out news like so much daily hash, letting the reality of our stories fall where it may.

In this case, it fell on a family that didn't deserve such treatment. They were going through quite enough dealing with the untimely death of a daughter. For that I felt somewhat sick to my stomach when I realized the damage done.

Swing and miss

Professional writers are proud of their work and strive to do it well. But we're not perfect. Sometimes you swing and miss. When that happens, you hope you didn't hit anybody with the bat.

But sometimes you do, and when that happens you have to take responsibility for it.

Mrs. Keener and Kathryn's sister, Paula, accepted my apology because they sensed it was heartfelt. As we sat there in the living room, fighting back tears, we knew nothing we could say would change fate. But we all agreed we have to live together in the aftermath.

For the Keener family, it's the awful sense of not knowing what happened. For me, it's remembering the scene of that lady picking up newspapers in her neighborhood, and knowing it doesn't just happen in the movies.

Reach Ken Burger at kburger@postandcourier.com or 937-5598.