Oklahoma Daily Faces Backlash After Posting Deceased Student’s Autopsy Report

The Oklahoma Daily has upset and enraged some readers this week at the University of Oklahoma for its temporary posting of a deceased student’s autopsy report.  The report was linked in a Daily tweet and later a story that revealed new details about the student’s death.  The paper has since apologized and pulled it from its website.

The trouble began Tuesday evening, when Daily staff learned student Casey Cooke had been legally drunk in June when she fell to her death from an OU administrative building.  That potentially significant detail was included in an autopsy report prepared by a state medical examiner.

According to Daily editor-in-chief Laney Ellisor, “we sent a tweet from the OUDaily account linking to the report.  That never should have happened.  In our haste to cover the breaking news, and because I was busy with my normal production duties and failed to review the tweet, we sent out information without carefully thinking through our actions or their repercussions.”

While outlining the specifics of Cooke’s blood alcohol level on the night of her death, the report also includes intimate details about her underwear, genitalia, and menstrual cycle and a very graphic accounting of her injuries.  A large block of readers is criticizing the paper’s decision to share the full report as distasteful and unethical– airing private information without enough accompanying news value and causing additional hurt to those who knew and loved Cooke.

A portion of one letter to the editor, from an OU alumnus: “Take a moment to consider the Cooke family who is still grieving after the loss of their daughter and the friends who have to read that trash you call journalism.  That information does not benefit the public in any way, shape or form.  The only thing that information does is expose one of OU’s beloved and missed students and reopen wounds from which the family is trying to heal. . . . I will be contacting businesses who place advertisements in your publication, inform them of this disgrace and bad practice and let them decide if they want to keep business with this kind of publication.  Please refer to the ‘minimize harm’ section of the Society of Professional Journalists guidelines.  Maybe that will serve as a reminder of what journalism should really be like.”

To be clear, the paper is legally within its rights to post the document.  The professional newspaper The Oklahoman also temporarily posted it in full, similarly choosing to then take it down.  According to faculty adviser Judy Robinson, the Daily staff met yesterday and discussed the situation at length.  Subsequently, along with removing the report, Ellisor issued an apology on behalf of the editorial board.  And the paper is running a spate of angry letters to the editor online and in today’s print edition, including one from the university president, enabling critics to have their say.

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