Questions to consider before publishing autopsy reports

Ever since Dale Earnhardt crashed and died on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001, autopsy results have been tricky material for journalists. Florida journalists sued the state to release photos from Earnhardt’s autopsy, so that independent experts could determine whether a head restraint would have saved Earnhardt’s life. (It would have, most agreed and most auto racing authorities require their use.)

Students at the University of Oklahoma are grappling this week with an autopsy report. There, the staff of the Oklahoma Daily linked to the autopsy results of a student who died in a fall from a building. Autopsy results are part of the public record in Oklahoma, as they are in Florida.

However, whenever journalists clumsily manage such records, they give state lawmakers the ammunition to erode the public record and make bad public policy. When death records are private, citizens are deprived of valuable knowledge.

That’s exactly what happened in Florida. Journalists demanded the Earnhardt photos for justifiable reasons. But Earnhardt’s family and fans were sickened by the notion of others looking at the NASCAR driver’s gruesome injuries, which included a basilar skull fracture, the very injury that head restraints are designed to prevent. Still, following the outcry, Florida enacted a law that sealed autopsy photos, videos and other recordings from the public record.

It’s easy for lawmakers to stand up for privacy and decency while portraying journalists who access autopsy results as predatory carrion feeders who want to splash vulgar images across the Internet for prurient minds.

Journalists don’t do a very good job explaining their motives. When Earnhardt died, newspaper editors said they weren’t interested in publishing the images, but they said that only after then Gov. Jeb Bush held a press conference declaring the photos should be sealed, with Earnhardt’s widow standing at his side.

Autopsy results and other death records reveal crucial information about the health of our society, our criminal justice system and medical care.

When journalists have probed autopsy results, the results are dramatic. They’ve revealed that possible homicides are going unprosecuted, that babies are possibly dying from abuse and not SIDS, and that state-housed psychiatric patients were needlessly dying.

In his book "And the Band Played On," Randy Shilts used autopsies to help document how the government prioritized budget concerns above public health during the emergence of the AIDS crisis.

Keeping death records and autopsy results open and accessible to the public allows journalists and citizens to scrutinize health trends, how we die, the role government may play in our deaths.

Yet, it’s hard to argue for the value of open death records, including autopsies, when the public is incensed about the mishandling of one particular record.

Journalists can do two things to combat such miscues. First, doing good journalism drawn from death records goes a long way. Groundbreaking investigative work that reveals trends or holds the powerful accountable will always resonate with the public.

Second, when accessing autopsy results or directing public attention to such results, explain the journalistic reason for doing so, before the outcry. Minimize the harm to the family by avoiding unnecessary images or links to gruesome or embarrassing information.

Here are questions to consider before publishing autopsy reports:

  • What public good comes from looking at the autopsy report?
  • How can you shield the public and the deceased's family and friends from unnecessary and gruesome details, while still protecting that public good? Is there information you could consider redacting? If you do, explain to readers why you have redacted some material.
  • What's the best way to present the relevant information in the autopsy? A link, screen grab, a PDF, an embedded document, a bulleted list? What warning might you provide before exposing readers to the autopsy report?
  • How can you communicate your intentions to the family and listen to their concerns?
  • How should you communicate your journalistic goals to the public?

If you carefully consider these questions and your options before publishing, you are more likely to avoid the backlash faced by students in Oklahoma this week.

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    Kelly McBride

    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute since 2002 and is now its vice president.


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