University of Oklahoma newspaper removes link to student’s autopsy

After University of Oklahoma student Casey Cooke fell to her death from a campus building in June, university officials removed fire escapes from the building and said they would re-examine the need for them on two other buildings. When Oklahoma’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner released Cooke’s autopsy this week, it showed that she had a .19 percent blood alcohol level at the time of her death, which was attributed to “blunt force trauma of head and chest.”

University paper The Oklahoma Daily tweeted news from Cooke’s autopsy and included a link to the report in an Aug. 21 story. It is unclear how they handled that link (whether it was inline or an embedded document) since that link is no longer in the story, which now has an editor’s note saying “Due to the graphic nature of the autopsy report’s content and the response from readers, the autopsy report has been removed. The autopsy report is a public record and can be retrieved from the State Medical Examiner’s Office for a $20 fee.”

Reaction to The Daily’s commitment to transparency was not positive.The Daily published a page of letters Wednesday scolding it for the decision. Jensen Smith, identified as an OU alum in one letter, wrote:

As gatekeepers of information for the student body, it is your responsibility to release information that informs students, as well as protect interested individuals from harm. Just because you have information does not give you the right to release it to the public, especially when it exposes a private citizen. These are the basics of unethical journalism. I am absolutely embarrassed to be associated with your organization.

Daily Editor Laney Ellisor apologized in an editorial titled “The Daily failed to serve OU community first.” The medical examiner released the report while students were preparing Wednesday’s paper, she wrote.

If we had taken time to consider the sensitive nature of the story instea+d of treating it like any other news, we would have recognized that while there is value in reporting the context of Cooke’s death, there was no need to provide the autopsy report, because its facts went beyond what was relevant to the story.

The paper’s editorial board also weighed in, apologizing for the report but stressing the importance of public records.

The autopsy confirmed what was reported at the time of her death: That Cooke had been drinking and that there was a student tradition of climbing this building.

It’s hard to keep emotion out of a story about a promising life cut short. But here’s one typical reaction to The Daily’s decision: “This is disgusting. Just because you have information doesn’t mean you should report it,” a commenter wrote.

With infinite respect to people going through the near-incomprehensible pain of losing a friend or family member, reporting relevant information, no matter how uncomfortable, is exactly The Daily’s mission.

It’s undoubtedly painful for those close to Cooke to read about her body in the antiseptic terminology of a medical examiner’s report, but The Daily didn’t demand they do that: It gave its readers a link, the means to read publicly available information that has resonance beyond her immediate circle. As the school officials’ response showed, the University of Oklahoma community needs to be able to discuss everything that contributed to her death — student drinking and student traditions as well as fire-escape placement — when deciding how to respond to such a tragedy. The Daily gave its readers, the community most affected by Cooke’s death, access to that information. That’s journalism.

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thank you all for the great comments on this. They were very helpful as we continued reporting the story. We’ve now published a thorough explanation of the process by which the Daily decided to remove the link. It’s here: http://journ.us/Qy51qW We’ve also published a piece on how to handle autopsy reports. That’s here: http://journ.us/T354NS Thanks again for helping us better understand these issues. –Julie Moos, Director of Poynter Online

  • http://www.facebook.com/doug.brill.946 Doug Brill

    Lack of discretion like this makes people hesitate to work with the press. It’s not hard to imagine this making a legislator try to privatize autopsy reports — and also providing the emotional fodder to give the proposal traction. I can’t see how publishing the autopsy report was good for anybody. Even aside from hurting the girl’s family and friends, it eroded trust in the publication. And for what gain?

  • Katy Cox

    As a student and a personal friend of Casey who experienced the OU Daily’s handling of the matter firsthand, let me describe to you what happened. The autopsy first showed up as a linked pdf in a tweet posted by the OU Daily’s twitter. The tweet did not mention what the link was, or that in contained graphic descriptions of her and personal information of her family. I clicked the link assuming it would be an article recapping previous coverage and presenting the new information about her BAC. What I found was an 8-page scanned document that included details like her parent’s home address, descriptions of her underwear, menstrual status, bra, genitalia, and breasts. It also listed all of her injuries, the manner in which her brain was removed during the autopsy, and how much her brain weighed. NONE of the information in the report had been redacted. Yes, her BAC was relevant info. Yes, a link to the toxicology report would have been acceptable. But the information presented was incredibly personal and private. Casey did not do anything wrong. She did not harm anyone and did not intend to harm herself. She had a horrible accident but that does not mean that she and ESPECIALLY her family should lose all right to privacy. That is not journalism.

    No one who was upset by the OU Daily’s handling of the matter claimed that all of the information was irrelevant. We all knew when her toxicology report was released the media would have a field day. And as someone who just lost her best friend, I had prepared myself for that and accepted it. I was not prepared to deal with the knowledge that a newspaper affiliated with my school had released to everyone around the world descriptions of my extremely private friend’s body. THAT is what hurts the most. Knowing how mortified she would be if she were alive and knew what had been published about her. And the worst part is that even now that the OU Daily has removed the link, I can still google it and find a copy on several sites. The information will never go away.
    @twitter-88463503:disqus You should be ashamed of yourself. I’m incredibly glad that during my four years at OU I never had the displeasure to get to know you. Part of providing a service is admitting when you have done something wrong. When you hurt that many people that deeply, it is a safe assumption that you are at least, in part, in the wrong.

  • http://twitter.com/adviserdavid David Simpson

    David Simpson: Linking is a new world, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to put readers just one click away from graphic information that is irrelevant to the story. Autopsy reports describe bodies in painful detail. (Whether testicles have descended is routine for men, for instance.) In some cases, graphic photos will be included. Would you tell readers “click here for graphic photos of the nude body of the deceased that we’ve scanned for you?” BTW, the document was not otherwise available online. As the OU Daily eventually said, if you really want it you can go to the coroner and pay $20. Final word: If you’re for all public records being shared all the time, does that mean you’re now going to post all rape incident reports, including victim’s name? Are you later going to obtain and post photos of her injuries?

  • http://twitter.com/adviserdavid David Simpson

    David Simpson: Linking is a new world, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to put readers just one click away from graphic information that is irrelevant to the story. Autopsy reports describe bodies in painful detail. (Whether testicles have descended is routine for men, for instance.) In some cases, graphic photos will be included. Would you tell readers “click here for graphic photos of the nude body of the deceased that we’ve scanned for you?” BTW, the document was not otherwise available online. As the OU Daily eventually said, if you really want it you can go to the coroner and pay $20. Final word: If you’re for all public records being shared all the time, does that mean you’re now going to post all rape incident reports, including victim’s name? Are you later going to obtain and post photos of her injuries?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Derrick-Perkins/9113216 Derrick Perkins

    There’s a difference between linking to a public document and running it wholesale on the front page (or website) – if they in fact linked to the report posted to, say, a Scribd.com account, that is. Based on that assumption, these students ought to be commended for giving their readers the tools to form a better understanding of the tragedy, not chastised for failing to act as arbitrary guardians of information.

  • http://twitter.com/chaseacook Chase Cook

    I was deeply saddened that the OU editorial board voted to take the entire autopsy report down. I’m an assistant editor and long-time staff member (2+ years) at the paper. I’ve disagreed with decisions before, and I know we could have handled releasing the autopsy report in a more sensitive manner, but I think it was absolutely the wrong decision to remove the link and make such a heavy-handed apology.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kelyons Kevin Lyons

    Interesting discussion, and one we can expect to see more often now that so much information is at our fingertips and we have so many avenues to present it. I wouldn’t have done it. If I were in college, I might have. Just because the information is available as a public record, doesn’t mean we have to publish it or should publish it. The facts seem simple, I’m not sure how the details are worth the impact to tell the story. Unethical might be too strong of a term. Insensitivity is what comes to mind. I would expect the outcry and a rather thin explanation of defense for the decision.