Why, day after day, has the tragedy in New York attracted national attention? The answer is complex, according to a media professor.

Taking a break from his tomato garden Sunday afternoon, Ontario County Sheriff Phil Povero stepped inside his house when the phone rang.

It was a television reporter from New York City.

The reporter had found Povero's unlisted telephone number and called hoping he would grant an interview Monday about the June 26 East Bloomfield crash that killed the five Fairport High School graduates.

Monday, as it turned out, would be spent fielding calls from reporters across the country, from NBC's "Today" show to People magazine to Newsday. The sheriff was interviewed at lunchtime Tuesday for Bill O'Reilly's Fox News talk show, "The O'Reilly Factor." The segment aired Tuesday night and included on-air comment from Rochester radio host and one-time congressional hopeful Bill Nojay.

"This has just taken on a life of its own," Povero said. "I don't recall this organization investigating a tragedy of this magnitude that generated this amount of media interest."

Ontario County has seen its share of tragic accidents, from a 1993 drinking and driving wreck in Farmington that killed five people and left a sixth seriously hurt to a June 2002 bus crash in Victor that killed five passengers.

The bus crash - caused by driver fatigue - was a national story, but only for a day or two. And while five youths being killed in a crash might briefly make national news - as did the recent deaths of four in a Florida railroad crossing crash - the Fairport tragedy has been in the national spotlight for weeks now.

Why? A combination of factors, according to one expert. New information - about possible cell-phone use - heightened the interest late last week.

That was, in effect, the second round. The tragedy itself brought the initial coverage: People magazine featured a multiple-page spread on the East Bloomfield crash in its July 16 issue.

On Monday, "Today" aired a lengthy report, examining the perils of text massaging while driving. Povero had announced late last week that messages were sent to and from driver Bailey Goodman's phone moments before her Chevy Trailblazer collided with a tractor trailer on Routes 5 and 20.
 
On Internet blogs and in chat rooms, some have speculated the tragedy would not have gotten such wide attention had not the girls been attractive young suburban cheerleaders. But Syracuse University journalism professor Joan Deppa believes the attention - initially anyway - was because "there was no good explanation of why this could have happened."

"It built a mystery around it," Deppa added. "They soon ruled out alcohol and that increased the mystery."

The final accident report, released by Povero late last week, cited text messaging, speeding and overcorrection after Goodman's SUV passed a sedan.

Killed with Bailey in the crash were passengers Meredith McClure, 17, Sara Monnat, 18, Hannah Congdon, 18, and Katie Shirley, 18.

Though Povero pointed out that there is no telling who in the SUV was using Goodman's phone or if the last incoming text message - received seconds before the crash - was ever read, the information "hit this nerve, which is the danger of text-messaging," Deppa said.

A recent survey by Nationwide Insurance found that 1 in 5 people text while driving. The numbers jump to 1 in 3 among 18- to 34-year-olds. Insurers predict this trend will only increase as more people obtain access to mobile devices with messaging technologies.

Text-messaging while driving is legal in New York. So is talking on a cell phone with a special earpiece or a speaker phone. Much of the media coverage after Povero's release of the crash report has highlighted the apparent contradiction in the law.

"This is a place where policy has lagged behind the problem," Deppa said. "Here's one of those places where I think the media are doing their job properly by using a case that is a real tragedy in trying to persuade the public and government officials to change policy."

Deppa added: "It will not be much comfort to the families right now but if, in the long run, this changes (laws), they will see that all this attention to the death of their daughters was important to others."

Though the accident is still hard to grasp, Diane McClure - mother of Meredith McClure - said the media attention hasn't bothered her because "it keeps Meredith's memory alive and bigger than life."

"I personally don't mind," she said. "Some of the other families get upset when people are trying to place blame."

The McClures said Meredith was outgoing, always in search of "the next biggest deal," her mom said. "She in life couldn't pull this off," Diane McClure said. "I hope she is getting a glimpse of this and getting a smile. It's so ironic."

Working in advertising and public relations, Diane McClure is keenly aware of how the media operates and understands that her daughter's death is big news. She said she hopes there is something good to come of it, "lessons to be learned."

Back at the sheriff's office, Povero continued to field media inquiries.

"If we can learn from some of the factual conclusions regarding traffic safety, then it's an important message to continue," he said,  “particularly when it comes to cell phone use."

Messenger Post reporter Jessica Pierce can be reached at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 250, or at jpierce@mpnewspapers.com.