UMass student death challenges university’s right to restrict information

On Nov. 16, Sydne Jacoby, a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts was walking with a group of friends near campus when she tripped and fell just before midnight. It’s a pretty well-traveled street for party revelers on a Friday night and Amherst officials would later confirm that alcohol was involved in the accident.

Three days later, Jacoby died from injuries suffered in the fall.

Yet, it wasn’t until 10 days later, in a story in The Daily Hampshire Gazette, that the university community and larger Amherst community were informed of the death.

In that initial report, UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said Jacoby was not identified by university officials based on the wishes of her family and privacy considerations. And in this case the university also chose not to send around an e-mail announcing the student death — standard operating procedure since I began teaching here five years ago.

My first thought: What else don’t we know? Is it legitimate for university officials to withhold information from the public based on privacy concerns?

Blaguszewski said the decision to hold back information on the Jacoby death was a “balancing of interests” between the public’s right to know and the family’s right to privacy.

“It’s not uncommon to not send out an email with a student death,” said Blaguszewski.  “It’s happened many times when students have died.”

The journalistic purpose of reporting on deaths

As a journalist, there are few stories more difficult to cover than the death of a young person. Making the call to get comments from the family is never an easy task. Yet we do it because it is part of the mission of journalists to get information — good and bad — out to the public. We tell the stories of the living and the dead. And when young people die under tragic circumstances, we report and write in the hopes that the story may do some good.

“I was surprised that the university bowed to the family’s request,” said Larry Parnass, the editor of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

“I felt there is an information need to be served. I wonder how they’ll handle future incidents. Can any family put a stop to news of legitimate interest to the entire UMass community by citing privacy? Under what circumstances does community interest override that?”

Deaths on university campuses are sensitive. Students have rights, but on public campuses such as the University of Massachusetts the public has a right to know if students are dying — and how they are dying. In this case, many private efforts were made to help students, yet where were the public efforts?

In this case, university officials privately contacted housing staff, faculty members and others impacted by Jacoby’s death to make sure they were aware of counseling services. Yet, in deciding not go to public with its information, university officials violated the social contract it has with its community.

“The UMass community has a right to know when it loses one of its members,” said Karen List, director of the UMass Journalism Program.  “It’s important to mark every student’s passing in that way–and a disservice to all of us not to do it.”

There has always been a certain amount of tension between journalists and the world of officialdom. At a public university it gets even trickier as officials balance the public’s right to know with putting the best face on the university. And, in a news environment that now includes Facebook, Twitter and citizen journalists, it’s rare that information doesn’t get out. In the Jacoby case, The Gazette did not publish her name because the only confirmation of her identity and the role of alcohol came from social media.

“We believe in putting sources on the record,” said Parnass. “The best that we got from UMass news office was that there had been a death and the school had not notified the community at the family’s insistence.”

Information wants to be shared

Social media kicked in days after The Gazette’s report came out when citizen journalist Larry Kelley posted Jacoby’s name on his blog “Only In the Republic of Amherst,” and questioned why the university had not been more forthcoming in releasing information surrounding the tragedy, asking whether the role of alcohol played a part in the silence.

“Obviously alcohol played a role in this terrible tragedy,” wrote Kelley. “Obviously UMass doesn’t want people to know that. Question is who — or what — are they trying to protect?”

Student journalists at The Massachusetts Daily Collegian used Facebook when conducting their reporting. Senior journalism student Katie Landeck reported the story for The Collegian and was able to find Alison Lynch, a friend who was with Jacoby that night, through Facebook.

The story was not an easy one for Landeck to report. She hesitated in calling the family, knowing their desire for privacy. But, she did it anyway. In the end, The Collegian reporters and editors thought of the public’s right to know and published what they knew.

“The thing is alcohol was a contributing factor and therefore the detail that she had been drinking is important to the story, and it was the big question everyone was going to ask themselves, so I felt it had to be in there,” said Landeck.

“It’s my job to answer those questions. But the most important thing, and [the] thing that drove this story for me, is that I don’t think the fact that she was drinking when she fell should rob her of her identity. She should be remembered by the UMass community as Sydne Jacoby, not just the drunk girl who tripped. She deserved a name, a face and for her story to be told, and I didn’t want to further punish her by denying her that.”

In the end, the attempt to control the flow of information by the family and the university ended up bringing more attention to Jacoby’s death. It’s not the first time we’ve seen that happen. That’s why transparency is usually the better course. But, what I’ve found on this campus (and others) is a shocking lack of media literacy. University officials and faculty truly do not understand how the media operates or what information is public — or should be.

These restrictive behaviors are the last thing we should be seeing on university campuses. University officials at UMass and elsewhere would be well-served to conduct annual media training sessions and seminars for faculty and administrators.

On college campuses, where the exchange of ideas is valued, so should the free flow of information.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/larry.kelley.9828 Larry Kelley

    Perhaps you should read the most recent Poynter article covering a tragic incident: “School shooting headlines show the power of a single word, a name.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/larry.kelley.9828 Larry Kelley

    The Daily Hampshire Gazette had confirmation from Amherst Fire Department Chief Tim Nelson that alcohol was involved (after assuring him the name of the victim would not appear in the article). And they also had clear corroboration of that from a public Facebook post that identified the young woman. I simply connected those two dots.