LSU’s Daily Reveille Identifies Student Suicide Victim Via Social Media, Receives Some Flak

The Daily Reveille at Louisiana State University earned some online flak this past weekend from a pocket of readers for identifying an apparent student suicide victim prior to an official confirmation.  The campus newspaper instead relied on students’ tweets and wall posts that named the victim while expressing grief over his death.

The specific Daily Reveille update under scrutiny: “8:18 p.m.– University Relations has not yet confirmed the identity of the student, but posts on Facebook and Twitter suggest the student was [I’m omitting name for now], a freshman finance major in the Sigma Chi fraternity.”

On a message board hosted by the LSU fan site, some commenters criticized the paper’s decision to identify the student solely on the basis of social media chatter.  One no-holds-barred example: “As someone who has taken approximately zero journalism classes in my life, I believe that a paper, even a shitty one like TDR, should be held to a higher standard than what they showed last night.  Publishing the name of a student that just took their own life hours before is a pretty low move, IMO.  Stating that their ‘source’ is Facebook or Twitter is just fricking pathetic.  It is in poor taste to publish the kid’s name before the university has released it.”

Another example: “[T]hey definitely should have waited for LSU to officially release something.  Citing Twitter was pretty unprofessional and disrespectful.”

In a separate message to me, an LSU student who admitted bias because she was a friend and classmate of the victim stated, “Is nothing sacred?  Why name him at all?  What is the use? . . . The family is going through enough without this being blasted out there.  Just because it’s being talked about by some people online doesn’t mean it should be free reign for a newspaper to print. . . . I thought journalists had higher standards.”

What do you think?  In the wake of incidents like the Onward State Paterno faux-death tweet, should the paper have restrained itself and checked with additional trusted sources before identifying the student?  Should it be publishing the student’s name to begin with, regardless of where the confirmation comes from?  And is verification of information via social media appropriate for situations involving suicide and death?

I reached out to Daily Reveille EIC Matthew Jacobs late Sunday night.  He kindheartedly responded uber-quick with some thoughts worth considering:

“Such a decision is not made lightly.  There has been talk back and forth regarding when it’s appropriate to publish a suicide victim’s name, if at all.  I know many professional papers take the stance that suicide should never be a news item unless it involves a public figure.  If I were running a metro paper, I’d probably take the same stance.  Things are different on a college campus, though.

“Even at a large school like LSU, gossip and the rumor mill operate within a fairly isolated bubble, especially now that social media is so dominant in college students’ lives. It’s vital, therefore, for a college newspaper to be the arbiter of such gossip and to provide definitive answers. While there are times when I would not accept social media as a news source, there are other times when information is so ubiquitously known that it becomes corroborative.

“There was a flood of attention across social media from LSU mourners and sympathizers who pinpointed the suicide victim’s name.  Dozens of posts across the Internet naming the same person left little doubt, particularly the ones written on the victim’s own Facebook page, which anyone can see because it’s accessible to the public.  LSU is big but close-knit, especially the Greek community, and we felt the news was universally accepted enough so that we weren’t releasing anything people didn’t already know.  We were sure not to include details about the method by which the suicide was committed or the circumstances, because those things become gritty and gossipy.

“Since the story broke, we have received confirmation from the university’s chancellor and police department.  The chancellor identified the victim’s name in an e-mail, so there’s no question that we would have included it in Monday’s print story if we hadn’t already.  That sourcing has since been updated online.”

2 Responses to “LSU’s Daily Reveille Identifies Student Suicide Victim Via Social Media, Receives Some Flak”
  1. I understand why they took flak; deaths of any kind, but suicides in particular, are terribly upsetting and sometimes people lash out at the messenger in their grief. But as a media adviser I think the Reveille’s choice was perfectly legitimate. They knew they had the story right and they were doing what newspapers do: getting the news out. A less honest paper wouldn’t have noted their social media sources and that would have been reprehensible. Moreover, EIC Matthew Jacobs’s eloquent response shows precisely how thoughtful their decision was. They tried to be arbiters of the gossip without reporting macabre details that would cause the story to become “gritty and gossipy.” That’s a tough tightrope to walk.

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