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.