How University of Oklahoma paper handled controversial autopsy report

In June, University of Oklahoma student Casey Cooke died after falling off a campus building. She’d reportedly been drinking. Tuesday night, the Oklahoma state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner released an autopsy report showing Cooke’s blood alcohol level was .19 percent.

Around 7 p.m. that night, OU students working on the paper’s regular
weeknight production shift saw that The Oklahoman had published a PDF of the autopsy. They downloaded the file — a public record, though The Daily hadn’t paid a fee to obtain it — popped it into the PDF folder on The Daily’s server, and Online Editor Joey Stipek tweeted out a link to the PDF. Assistant Campus Editor Chase Cook wrote a story that also included a link to the PDF. It was a text, or inline link, not an embedded document, Cook said when I talked to him on the phone Thursday.

Reaction to the autopsy report linked in the tweet and the story was “all negative, for the most part,” Daily Editor Laney Ellisor said when reached by phone Thursday. As well as students calling the newspaper names on Twitter, members of Cooke’s family called Ellisor to say posting the autopsy interfered with their mourning.

The Daily’s 12:30 planning meeting the next afternoon in the newspaper’s conference room was devoted to the debate over what to do next, Ellisor said. The staff circled around three options: Leave the report up, redact some portions of the report or take it down completely.

NewsOK, The Oklahoman’s website, chose to take down the autopsy report, Ellisor said. (I’ve asked The Oklahoman’s editor for comment, but the report is not available on its Tuesday story about Cooke’s autopsy, which was modified Wednesday.)

Cook thinks the two mistakes his paper made were not acknowledging it took the report from The Oklahoman and not making it clear in the tweet that the link was to an autopsy report.

“It did kind of look like it might have been another story,” he said. He also said he thought some of the “frustration and vitriol” directed at the paper was because his report used the word “drunk” to describe Cooke.

Alcohol use has been an issue on OU’s campus since the 2004 death of Blake Adam Hammontree, a freshman who died of alcohol poisoning in a fraternity house. University President David Boren announced a new policy that year that rendered the campus dry in most circumstances. The Daily “has a storied past with the Greek community” on campus, Cook said somewhat euphemistically, a tension you can get a taste of in the comments on a Daily story marking the fifth anniversary of Hammontree’s death. Casey Cooke was a member of the Pi Beta Phi sorority.

Judy Gibbs Robinson, the paper’s adviser, said in a posting on the College Media Association’s listserv that Ellisor called her at home Tuesday night asking for advice. “They were already getting killed for it in the comments,” she wrote.

I checked and saw that The Oklahoman also had the link. I read the story itself and found no fault. I did not advise them to take it down. I thought: It’s a public record. It’s an important story. There are consequences for the actions of a student who gets drunk and climbs onto a building.

By Wednesday morning, as the condemnation mounted and was nearly universal, I kept reading the posts and thinking about the comments. By the time the students went into their 12:30 meeting, I had come to the opinion that it should either come down in whole or in part — perhaps leaving the page with the alcohol finding and removing the rest.

I did not need to suggest that to students; most were already of the same opinion, although a couple argued passionately (and articulately) for keeping the link up. My role in the meeting was mostly to remind them to focus on doing what feels right rather than responding to critics.

Poynter ethics expert Kelly McBride said “it’s a little more complicated than what feels right” when I called her to ask about that.

Ethical decisions have to be guided by “asking questions that help you identify what your core journalistic principles are,” McBride said.

Journalists need to consider the harm they may do to families and their readers, but they also have to think about how their decision will affect other journalists working with those public records.

“You really need to be able to use autopsy records to do good journalism,” McBride said, “and whenever a journalist or a journalism organization manhandles autopsy records, it’s very easy for the public or politicians to say we should close those off.”

In a piece about how to handle autopsy reports, McBride writes that any journalist sharing an autopsy report should “explain the journalistic reason for doing so, before the outcry.”

Ellisor says consensus about what felt right evolved as the meeting stretched on for more than an hour. “I watched members of my ed board change their own minds during the meeting,” she said. “We were all completely torn about this issue. We were all changing our minds as we worked through it together.”

The Daily received support for its original decision, mostly from journalists and alumni of the paper, Ellisor said, but “our main student audience was pointing out to us that, in this particular case, the public document didn’t add a lot to the story.”

But what if someone spotted something in it that did? Ellisor says they considered the point but at the end of the meeting there really was no need for a vote — “We’re not the Supreme Court,” she said; they went around the table voicing their conclusions — and the overwhelming sentiment was the doc should come down.

It came out of the paper’s PDF archive, the paper put an editor’s note on Cook’s story directing anyone who wanted to see the report to the State Medical Examiner’s Office and Managing Editor Jared Rader, Ellisor said, deleted the original tweet.

In an editorial published in Thursday’s paper, Ellisor wrote The Daily didn’t adequately weigh its need to inform its readers “against another journalistic responsibility: minimizing harm to the community we serve.”

Cook had to leave the meeting before it ended to get to class; he said he thought taking the link down “was not the right decision.” Robinson, he said, “was great about trying to guide us through this hellhole of a day.” He says he believes the paper was “ultimately trying to do the right thing.”

“It’s a fine line to balance being human and being sensitive and providing the best journalism we can,” he said.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=656715835 Andrew Beaujon

    Hey Lindsey, thanks for your comment. Laney and Judy described the sentiment in the room shifting toward taking the the doc down, which is why I chose the word “overwhelming” (in the sense of pro-takedown sentiment overpowering others.) Laney told me, “No one counted, but it was obvious that we had a majority.” Sounds like others (like you!) may have been counting. You wanna call me and discuss a better adjective? abeaujon@poynter.org / 703-594-1103.

  • Anonymous

    I would not call our decision to take the autopsy report down an “overwhelming sentiment.” As one of the editors who disagreed with our decision — and who still vehemently disagrees with how we are handling it —majority ruled, but it was a five to three majority. That is not overwhelming dissent.