From AJR, December 2000 issue
Feeling the Heat
When the subjects of negative coverage commit suicide, news organizations are apt to find themselves targets of intense public scrutiny--and anger.
By Jacqueline Soteropoulos
Jacqueline Soteropoulos is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
S TAKING OUT THE TAMPA, Florida, courthouse for the county's top prosecutor proved fruitless the morning of July 13, so WFLA's Steve Andrews decided to drive past the apartment complex where Harry Lee Coe III lived.
Just three days earlier, the investigative reporter broke the story that Coe had borrowed money from two employees. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush subsequently ordered an investigation to examine the ethically questionable loans and allegations that the state attorney for Hillsborough County had destroyed public records.
It was a huge story in Tampa Bay, aggressively followed by the region's other media. Coe was a popular, colorful character, a former judge nicknamed "Hangin' Harry" for handing down whopping sentences. He was up for re-election in November.
But that morning, Andrews and producer-photographer Gordon Dempsey didn't find Coe at home, either. After about two hours, they decided to drive around the neighborhood. As they approached an expressway overpass, Andrews spotted a man with gray hair seated underneath. "My partner said, 'Whoever it is has blood on his shirt,' " Andrews recalls. "I honestly thought it was a homeless person who had been injured."
The pair approached and saw a gun in the man's lap. Andrews got a look at the bloody face. "I said, 'Yeah, it's Harry.' " Andrews, who had led the pack in reporting on Coe's activities, had found him with a gunshot wound over his left eyebrow--a suicide victim.
"It was rather stunning and shocking," Andrews says. "It was a moment that I'll remember for a long time. I stood there and just stared. A hundred things were shooting through my mind."
As his partner dialed 911 and Andrews called the station, the 47-year-old veteran TV reporter suddenly became a part of the story and a focus of public wrath in the wake of the popular politician's death.
Three weeks after Coe's suicide in Tampa, a similar incident took place in Cleveland. Well-known former TV personality Joel Rose killed himself the day the Plain Dealer reported that he was under investigation for allegations that he mailed underwear and obscene messages to nearly two dozen women. As in Tampa, the journalists became a focus of public scrutiny, and the firestorm of criticism has not subsided.
"I have never seen a case that has prompted as much media backlash as this one has," says Jack Powers, a communications professor at Cleveland State University. Rose, who was a television and radio host for more than 30 years, was in many ways the face of Cleveland, he says. "Citizens here blame the Plain Dealer for Joel Rose killing himself. It was a huge uproar."
When a reporter's subject commits suicide, it's not unusual for the media to be pummeled by public criticism. Those complaints can put editors and station managers on the defensive at a time when they are unwilling participants in a dramatic news event. And the journalists at the heart of the story are often left in shock, facing accusations from readers or viewers that their reporting has left them with blood on their hands.
A NDREWS SAYS HE SENSED the public outcry coming over Coe's suicide from the get-go, even as he stood staring at the state attorney's body leaning against the vine-covered expressway pillar.
"I didn't think, 'Oh my God, what have I done?' One of the many thoughts I had was that the backlash of this was going to be incredible," Andrews says. "I don't think the public has a particularly high opinion of the media. I think they look for opportunities to bash the media."
The overall tone of viewer response was furious. People accused Andrews of causing Coe's death and told the journalist they hoped he burned in hell. Andrews estimates that about 70 percent of the hundreds of e-mails the station received were negative.
The station also received three calls threatening to kill Andrews at his home. Local law enforcement set up a 10-day watch at his house, and security at the station was heightened, Andrews says.
"Did they get to me? Yeah, it got to me. Usually, I'm pretty thick-skinned about this stuff," Andrews says. "I think what bothered me so much is that there were so many and they were so accusatory.... People just wanted to point the finger and say, 'You killed Harry Lee Coe.' "
Similar messages were received at the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune, which also had covered the story. "I hope Mr. Coe's blood never washes from your hands," read an e-mail to the Times.
"There was always the element that the media had a piece of this," says Times reporter Sue Carlton, who worked on the Coe story.
A man at the suicide scene wore a sign blaming the television media for Coe's death.
"It was a terrible day. That day, you just do your job and get it done and write the best story you can," Carlton says. "You're a reporter and it's a news event and you're trying to do your job, but there's a human part of you, too."
Tampa Tribune Managing Editor Donna Reed believes the public doesn't understand how deeply the suicide affected the reporters who had covered Coe for years. Reed had lunched with Coe just weeks before his death. "I guess it was the public's way of dealing with the why," she says. "There is no answer to that question. I understand the backlash, that the public needed a place to vent their horror."
Times Editor Paul Tash notes that Coe had weathered considerable media inquiries in previous years. "I also think people are too quick to draw cause and effect. I don't think Mr. Coe killed himself over a couple of bad headlines about loans that had been ostensibly repaid."
Unlike other reporters who worked on the story, Andrews also came under fire after station managers decided not to have him go on air that day. Instead, they told him to work behind the scenes, coordinating coverage.
"I had a lot of different feelings. One of those feelings was, let me tell the story. Another one was, this is a very emotional time, you might not be thinking logically, listen to what other people say," Andrews says. "Part of me wanted to do the story, because I think I could do the story better than everybody else, because I saw something nobody else did."
But Dan Bradley, the station's vice president/news director, says he was concerned about Andrews that day. "Steve and his producer-photographer, Gordon Dempsey, were very upset. This is not a situation a reporter expects to find themselves in the middle of," Bradley says. "There was also a concern of putting Steve in a position where some people might think he was--I'm not sure if this is the right word--bragging about his story and the results."
E-mail messages flooded the station, calling Andrews a coward and a chicken for staying off the air that day. One, he says, accused him of "slithering away."
Although newspaper editors say they would have kept their reporters on the story, Bradley says there's a world of difference between print and broadcast in these cases. "Newspapers have a wonderful veil of anonymity in the way they go about doing their work that doesn't exist with broadcast reporters."
Says Andrews: "I think if I had gone on the air, there would've been the opposite backlash. People would've said we were gloating. There's no way you're going to win. There's no way you're going to come out on top and look good."
I N CLEVELAND, REPORTER ROSA Maria Santana, who initially wrote about the Joel Rose investigation, was also blamed in part for her subject's death. Santana was advised by her supervisor not to comment for this article and declined to do so.
"The obvious target is the newspaper," says Plain Dealer Editor Douglas C. Clifton. "In their minds, the newspaper is the triggering factor in the death."
Clifton says there is not necessarily a connection between the Plain Dealer article and Rose's suicide the morning it ran. "The response, suicide, is not something that is contemplated, expected," he says.
Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute, says blaming journalists oversimplifies the complicated factors that lead to suicide.
"When there's a tragedy, including suicides, it's understandable that people, out of their grief, look not just for reasons but for targets of their grief," Steele says. "Some people point fingers at journalists as being part of the cause. While it's understandable, it's short-sighted.... It's not as simple as saying, obviously it's journalists' fault because they were investigating them."
In addition to being the focus of blame, editors and station managers find they need to justify their actions to a less-than-understanding public.
Readers have criticized the Plain Dealer for relying on anonymous sources in its initial story on the Rose investigation. Later, the newspaper reported that evidence on the packages did not match Rose's DNA. That finding exacerbated the public's anger, Cleveland State's Powers says.
"I think the big issue was, why did they name him? There were no charges, and it was all anonymous sources," Powers says. "The only reason they ran this story is because of who he was."
Powers says he sympathizes with the Plain Dealer's predicament. "From their point of view, all they did was investigate a story," he says. "Did they cross a line? I think intent means a lot, and I don't think that they intended to destroy a person's life."
Louis Hodges, Knight Professor of Ethics in Journalism at Washington and Lee University, says whether or not it's fair, papers need to realize that the public will judge them when a tragedy like the Rose suicide occurs. The burden of proof rests with the paper, he says, because of the damage stories can do to the subjects and their families.
"It's improper for the paper to publish something that can be perceived this way on flimsy evidence," Hodges says of the Rose case. "If he was merely a suspect and if the source was anonymous, it shouldn't have been published."
Editor Clifton defends the newspaper's pursuit of the story. Rose was a well-known figure in the community, he says, and the Plain Dealer had an obligation to report what it could after a search warrant had been executed at his home with police and the prosecutor present.
"The trip wire of public notice had been crossed," Clifton says, adding that when the newspaper gave Rose an opportunity to comment on the allegations before publication, he said he didn't know anything about them.
"We felt comfortable that, a) this was not just a wild goose chase kind of search; b) the person in question was a public figure and widely known; and c) this was an odd kind of a crime that affected a great number of women," Clifton says.
Rose remains the only suspect in the case, according to the Plain Dealer.
Similarly in Tampa, reporters and editors uniformly defend their pursuit of the story before Coe's suicide. "When you run for office and are up for re-election, there's a huge public trust that comes with that," Bradley says. "It's highly questionable ethics to find yourself owing money....to the people who are working for you."
Andrews' reporting on the loans was backed by public records. And Coe was no stranger to controversy. Questions of a gambling habit followed Coe for years. He borrowed $1,000 from friends to pay his taxes in 1991. Several years later, he was lampooned after his underwear and two guns were stolen from his car. Several other guns were discovered missing from his office.
"He was a well-known public figure and there were repeated questions raised about his behavior in office," the Tribune's Reed says. "He was very powerful in that the public safety was in his hands. He was a protector of the people."
Times Editor Tash says Coe was "a public official with terrific responsibilities for justice, and the management of his own personal financial affairs, particularly in dealing with his subordinates, could reflect clearly on how he handles his responsibilities.
"Particularly in the context of his previous history of financial instability, I think it's absolutely appropriate. We would be neglecting our responsibilities if we didn't report on it."
Steele sees the job as a delicate balance between minimizing harm and uncovering fact.
"Journalists must take into account when they pursue truth the possible consequences of reporting and publishing," he says. "In many stories, the truth is elusive. Both in the Coe case and the Rose case, we still don't know the full truth."
When investigating a person, Steele says, reporters and editors must hold themselves to a high level of professionalism. They should also be respectful and compassionate--even to those accused of wrongdoing, he says. "We must be factually accurate and contextually authentic, and we must make darn sure we're as fair as possible to the person that's in our spotlight," Steele says.
R EPORTING ON A SUICIDE by a public figure is challenging enough. Being a witness to one can affect journalists in ways they didn't anticipate.
Although reporters are routinely exposed to violence, Andrews says his suicide discovery left him shocked. "We've all covered our share of bodies. We typically don't know who they are. It's something you don't ever get used to, but you see it a lot. When it's somebody you know, it was rather stunning.
"We've been to the gruesome scenes of accidents, shooting.... We've desensitized ourselves to retain sanity. But this was a little more than I was prepared for," Andrews says. "I really am stunned by what he did. Just stunned."
For Andrews, the grim scene was compounded by the public outcry. "I have never been attacked as viciously as I was when this occurred," he says. "The poison that was coming out of these people was amazing."
Andrews says after he responded to all the negative e-mail messages he received, about 95 percent of the people apologized.
In 1987, when Pennsylvania State Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer put a revolver in his mouth at a press conference and pulled the trigger, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Frederick Cusick and radio reporter Tony Romeo were a few feet away. Dwyer had been convicted of arranging a kickback in return for awarding a state computer contract, but maintained he was innocent.
"The thing that always bothered me, and I knew Budd Dwyer fairly well...was that I got a tremendous adrenaline rush out of the story," Cusick says. "The thing that bothered me the most was how little I was bothered by it.
"It was like covering a car wreck. Most of us just get over it and acquire a certain distance from it. Part of it is sort of a macho, tough reporter thing."
Though offered counseling, Cusick declined. "I never thought it was the press that took him down," Cusick says. "You can't let [the suicide] dissuade you from doing your job."
Romeo had a different reaction. What he witnessed in Harrisburg that day caused him to leave the profession for several months, thinking he might never return. Witnessing the gory suicide "was the emotional equivalent of physical shock. You just go on automatic pilot--you have a job to do." But about a week after Dwyer's death, Romeo says he was overwhelmed by darkness and felt swallowed by the blackness of the winter skies. "It triggered a period of depression," says Romeo, who now covers Philadelphia City Hall for the all-news KYW 1060 AM. "I was a snowball down a hill of bad thoughts."
Although Romeo had not participated in any of the original reporting of Dwyer's legal tangles, he says he nonetheless felt "some sort of guilt by association" in the days after Dwyer pulled the trigger. Romeo says he took a break from journalism and received counseling, with moral and financial support from his employer, the Pennsylvania Network.
A few months after the suicide, Romeo says, he began sleeping with a light on. Thirteen years after Dwyer was buried, Romeo says he rarely thinks of the suicide. But he still prefers not to sleep in total darkness.
Andrews says he was offered counseling after finding Coe's body, but instead turned to family and friends for support. He says the trauma of that day has not changed his mind about the value of his reporting. "This is the most powerful law enforcement officer in Hillsborough County, who could literally--with the stroke of a pen--change someone's life and seek the death penalty," Andrews says. "This was a public issue, not just prying into someone's affairs.
"I don't think it has affected my ability to gather news because I don't think I did anything wrong. We didn't dog Harry Coe. We didn't hound him," Andrews says. "Had I known he was suicidal, would I have done the stories anyway? Probably. I think we have a responsibility to do stories about public officials.
"I feel very bad about Mr. Coe's death," he says. "I don't feel responsible."