Suicide by source: What do you do when a story is followed by the worst possible outcome?

Dan Stockman

The Google Alert plopped into my email inbox at 5:44 p.m., and it was a doozy for so late in the day – a local funeral home appeared to be preparing services for Stephen E. Clapp. A quick check of the police logs showed Fort Wayne officers had been dispatched to his home the day before on a report of a suicide. The police report confirmed that Clapp had, indeed, killed himself while his wife was out.

This was significant to me not just because Clapp was a local man who had authored or co-authored more than 30 books, ran a local religious non-profit and was a board member for several respected local, state and national groups.

It was significant personally because I had written two exposes of Clapp a few weeks before, showing how the non-profit he ran had lost close to $1 million belonging to individuals and other charities, how he may not have been an ordained minister as he claimed, did not have the MBA he said he did – and was a convicted felon who had not only served almost five years in federal prison for defrauding two banks, but after indictment had defrauded a third bank and used the $500,000 to go on the lam for more than a year, all of which he hid from those entrusting their money to him.

In short, the target of my investigation – the man I had publicly shamed – had killed himself.

Now what?

I’m used to the people I investigate hating my guts. I’m somewhat used to them screaming at me. I’m used to their attempts to pressure me. Having them commit suicide is somewhat new.

Notice the qualifier “somewhat.”

In 2005, I showed how attorney Richard Blaich had taken the reins of a local foundation, replaced board members with his friends, and then used the foundation to buy a $1.5 million retirement home in a gated community outside Las Vegas. Six months later – in the midst of lawsuits by two state attorneys general – Blaich was dead in what appeared to be a suicide.

Perhaps some reporters don’t have to think twice about what they do, but I have always wrestled with the balancing act investigative journalism requires. In the end, of course, truth always wins out, but I have never been comfortable with destroying lives and reputations – however necessary – and I hope that I never am. To me, that will be the sign it is time to put away my notebook. Blaich’s death added a new dimension to that equation – I had always known what the stakes were in these kind of stories, but a dead body and a grieving family bring it into new relief.

When Blaich died, I didn’t know what to do. Should I grieve? Feel guilty? Send a condolence card?

So I called Keith Woods, who was then at The Poynter Institute. Keith reminded me that anyone who commits suicide is, by some definition, mentally ill and it is the fool who tries to apply logic to any decision made by that person. You simply cannot say that this action was the result of this or that, whatever the circumstances may be.

He also pointed out that the same logic that justifies our investigations applies here: Blaich made all of these choices, not me, whether it was driving a luxury car at foundation expense, buying the resort home, or possibly ending his life. Keith’s wise counsel helped immensely and I’m still grateful all these years later.

And a month later, the county coroner ruled that Blaich had not, in fact, killed himself, but had died accidentally.

Flash forward six years and here was the same situation again, only this time there was no doubt that Clapp’s death had been no accident. And six years later, Keith’s words were still true and a great comfort. But there was also something new.

Though I, of course, felt awful for Clapp and his family, I had learned some lessons from those uncomfortable days six years ago, and they made this more recent situation much easier. These were things I had always done, but Blaich’s death made me much more conscious of them and determined to never stray:

  • Never write anything you aren’t absolutely certain you will not regret later. This should go without saying, but if you genuinely ask yourself this question – “Is there any way I could ever regret this sentence?” – it keeps you from all kinds of problems later. This should not be confused with writing the truth, which is always an absolute. This is more in how you craft the truth, what you choose to leave in and leave out. It’s not just triple checking and printing only what you can prove in court but printing what you need to print and leaving out what you don’t. I believe it is a reporter’s job to be aggressive and push, and an editor’s job to restrain and pull back when necessary – but I sleep well at night knowing that I never have to worry about what I’ve turned in.
  • Be fair. Bend over backward to be fair. Be more than fair. I have embarrassed more politicians than I can count. I have shut down non-profits. I have had judges thank me from the bench for exposing corruption. I have run people out of town. And not one of them – not ever – could say I was unfair or that I had not done my utmost to give their side of the story. This is because I don’t think twice about giving their explanations and protestations more prominence than they deserve. Because I do everything I can to treat their side with the same credibility as the accusations have. That gives credibility to both me and the accusations, because it’s clear to any reader it’s no hack job or smear piece. And again, I sleep well at night because of it.
  • Understand who’s to blame. This is true for any story with any outcome, but it’s an axiom that our readers often get better than we do. When Blaich died, pretty much all of Fort Wayne regarded it as a suicide, and nothing the coroner said later changed their mind about it. But readers didn’t blame me – they blamed Blaich. The same with Clapp – the reaction from the community wasn’t that I had killed a man or that I had caused his death in any way. In fact, of thousands of readers, I got a total of one letter blaming me, and it appeared to be from one of Clapp’s contributors who could not face the reality of her friend’s deceptions. Countering that was a letter from his cousin – thanking me for revealing the truth. Regardless, it was Clapp who made every decision that mattered. My only decision – which was an easy one to make and one I would make again without hesitation – was to make his choices public.

The stakes are high in any investigation, sometimes to the point of life and death, and sometimes in stories that are not investigatory at all. This was made all too apparent recently with the suicide of Gretchen Molannen. Molannen was the subject of a carefully crafted, sensitive story in Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times about her rare genital arousal disorder. She took her own life just before or just after the story ran online.

There is no indication – save a blogger’s insinuations – that Molannen’s tragic decision had anything to do with publication. In fact, there is a good chance that the months of preparation for the Times’ story may have prevented it from happening sooner.

Related: Tampa Bay Times searched for clues source might commit suicide

We’re not merely entertaining people with our work, and we need to take it as seriously as the consequences warrant. But by doing everything you can to ensure you’ve upheld the highest principles attainable, you can rest easy at publication. And by recognizing what you can’t do, you can rest easy even when the worst happens.

Dan Stockman is a senior reporter at The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify the timing of Gretchen Molannen’s suicide.

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  • marcsavoy

    I am not a journalist. I found your article to be exactly the approach any journalist should take in covering news stories, specifically when someone’s reputation is at stake. All that you’ve outlined offers everything there is to know about writing ethical, honest, meticulously truthful investigatory stories that definitely serve the public interest.

    What I do find fault in your article is the somewhat sensationalist attitude of writing it from the perspective of Clapp’s suicide, demonstrating seeming guilt where the guilt is not genuine, as a professional journalist knowing you are not in the least bit responsible.

    But this wasn’t even the worst case scenario outcome for you. In our litigious society you might very well find yourself as defendant in a case of a bulldog attorney looking to go after you on the stand to at least making it appear you weren’t as ethical as you might have been.

    The question you must ask yourself to determine whether the “moral, ethical standards” as journalist you espouse are genuine or not, is to ask yourself whether you would still follow up on the investigation had you known Clapp would take his own life.

    That is one moral dilemma not very many would like to ponder.

  • Oliver Crangle

    I am not a journalist, but I found a lot of value and things to think about in your piece, especially as regards many of the frivolous and shaming stories I see go viral on the net.

    I do want to disagree with Keith Woods:

    “So I called Keith Woods, who was then at The Poynter Institute. Keith reminded me that anyone who commits suicide is, by some definition, mentally ill and it is the fool who tries to apply logic to any decision made by that person. You simply cannot say that this action was the result of this or that, whatever the circumstances may be”

    I think this is a too convenient out. I am not saying you are culpable in any manner for Clapp’s death. I am only saying it is nonsense, it is sick, that we tell each other that suicide implies mental illness and society is made poorer for behaving in that manner.

    Anyway, thank you for your piece.

  • Rachel McClelland
  • James Hampton

    Bragging about getting people to commit suicide. Wow.

  • facebook-749911534

    Important article. Bravo dan….re Tampa bay story, someone should ask reporter Lampeter Antonio how she coping now.

  • Libby Stack

    Good article and required reading for journalists. Thank you.

  • Fred DeSousa

    On the whole, great observations. Regarding the “be fair” bullet: curious to know your thoughts on the concept of artificial credibility– the phenomenon that occurs when anyone from a person-on-the-street to a known liar is quoted beside a person with clear qualifications and expertise just to get the “other side of the story.” He said, she said reporting is probably another column, but as my Journalism 201 prof said, “Who are they, and how do they know what they say they know?”

  • Dan Stockman

    Yes, thank you Mike. Yet another great example of how futile it is to try to assign blame in such a tragedy.

  • Poynter

    Mike, Thank you for clarifying that. We changed the story so it now says she took her life just before or just after the story ran online. I’m admittedly biased, but I really admire how sensitively you’ve handled the situation and the public dialogue about it. –Julie Moos, Poynter Online

  • Gayle Falkenthal

    Dan, this column should be required reading in j-schools across the country. Thank you.

  • Mike Wilson

    Dan, thanks for your thoughtful column. One point of information: You write that she took her life “the day after the story ran,” but we don’t know that. She was last seen alive on Thursday night, and the story first appeared online late Friday, so it’s possible she did not see it published, though she certainly knew it was going to be published, and knew exactly what it would say.