This story is an adaptation from “High Falls: A Human Chain,” which appears in full at The Delacorte Review, the literary nonfiction journal of the Columbia Journalism School. At the Delacorte Review Podcast, Robert W. Fieseler talks about the moral dilemma of reporting and telling this story.
Please note: This story includes discussion of suicide and graphic material. If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255), or visit SuicidePreventionLifeline.org and use the online Lifeline Crisis Chat. Both are free and confidential.
Sean Peters, a 24-year-old student and the chief reporter for the University of Cincinnati newspaper The News Record, sprinted around the corner of West McMillan Street onto Rohs Street. It was Sunday, May 1, 2011, just after 11 in the morning. Minutes earlier, Peters had been in the News Record offices, in a lecture-hall basement, feet on his desk. A student reporter named Erin Leitner had texted Peters. She lived on Rohs, parts of which were known as havens for off-campus ragers, which had become almost nightly occurrences as the spring quarter wound down. Steps away from her front door, she’d walked into a scene she could barely describe or believe.
“Someone found a hand,” she wrote.
Peters read Leitner’s text to Gin Ando, a UC senior who’d risen through the student ranks to the position of editor in chief. “I remember just having this very sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach,” Ando recalls. Peters called Leitner before he left the office and peppered her with questions: “What happened?” “Where are you?’ “Male or female?” “Right or left hand?” He met up with Sam Greene, the News Record’s photo editor, and the two ran across campus together.
Twitter was erupting with news of something dreadful on Rohs Street. WLWT, a local television station, posted a brief 200-word story on its web site, “Man Dies In Fall From TV Tower.” WLWT’s report described confusion around the circumstances: “Investigators initially weren’t sure whether the man was electrocuted or fell,” the story read. @karentvchick reposted WLWT’s article with the comment, “You knew SOMEONE was gonna be upset over All My Children,” alluding to the soap opera’s recent cancellation. From the News Record offices, Ando tracked the rumor mill aghast. He sensed that fact-based reporting could be a tonic to misinformation. “When there’s something that can garner that much attention with so many people in such a small area,” Ando says, “I wanted to cover everything that anyone could ever say about it.”
As Peters and Greene arrived at the scene, a crowd of more than 40 students gathered behind a line of fluorescent tape. Several officers stood sentry, ignoring questions and asking the odd college kid to move back a step or two. The police made room for emergency workers in biohazard suits, which made them resemble astronauts. Occasionally, one of the workers stooped to gather what appeared to be biological samples and place them in plastic bags. Peters could see detectives interviewing homeless people who camped in the tree line beneath the tower; the faces and clothes of these individuals seemed to be covered in something maroon.
An independent publication run by students and largely funded by its own advertising, the News Record at the time had a readership of 52,000 throughout the university, plus neighborhoods bordering the school, making it one of the most-read publications in a city of more than 300,000 people. The paper’s reach was emblematic of the 1,600-some student-run college newspapers filling gaps in local coverage nationwide, during a time of brutal contraction and layoffs at legacy publications. More readers than ever were counting on journalists such as Peters to produce local news at professional standards but without professional pay or professional editors.
Peters and Greene spotted Leitner, their colleague, behind the police tape, and waved to her. She waved back. Earlier, police had lowered a section of the tape to let a hook-and-ladder fire engine into the caution zone, and Leitner had snuck through, to speak with witnesses.
“Are you a reporter?” someone asked her. “A student reporter,” she answered. The person waved her off.
Leitner had then approached a group of residents standing outside of 2304 Rohs. “Do you know what’s going on?” she asked. “I don’t know,” answered a girl sitting on a staircase, “but there is a hand next to my car.” The resident pointed to a pale, purple shape several yards away. Leitner stepped closer to examine the mound, and her stomach clenched. She’d texted Peters, alerting him to the challenges ahead.
Peters maneuvered around the police tape and interviewed more than a half dozen people, all while texting and phoning details back to Ando. “I reported what people told me and what I saw,” recalled Peters.
Between calls and text messages from the scene, News Record staffers debated about what they were reporting. It could have been murder, a fall, a stunt gone array, but editors collectively surmised that the likeliest explanation was suicide. “I wasn’t reporting on a young man’s life that had been taken,” insisted Peters. “I was reporting on the scene that was left. For many of us, that was the more lasting effect.”
Still, reporters at the scene could not confirm the cause of death from police. “We don’t know much,” Cincinnati Police Sergeant Jeff Gramke of the Homicide Unit told Leitner. Peters approached a third-year biochemistry student named Justin Cerrato, who described his morning. At 9:15 am, police had banged on Cerrato’s door and asked if they knew any reason why there would be a bloody hand in front of his house. “Body parts strewn throughout the woods… pieces of meat everywhere,” Cerrato told Peters.
Peters and Leitner shared a byline on newsrecord.org, under the headline “Police respond to death at WLWT tower.” They’d beaten The Cincinnati Enquirer and nearly every other news organization in the area to publication. They’d also, ultimately, decided to quote Cerrato’s graphic testimony in their story’s final paragraphs. “When so many people see parts of a human body,” recalled Peters, “I think the reader needs to understand what the population of that very small area went through.”
Since breaking news stories tend to follow an inverted pyramid format, with essential information up top, they rationalized that the News Record would be eschewing sensationalism by relegating the most grisly material to the bottom of the piece. Peters acknowledges that he presumed the death was a suicide and reported the piece with that hunch in mind. “I think that by showing the gross aftereffects,” recalled Peters, “maybe, maybe, maybe you could help somebody from making that same decision.”
Within minutes, their story was being retweeted and website traffic spiked by thousands of views, marking what Greene would then call “the highest traffic day for newsrecord.org of all time.”
Soon, “Rest in Peace” messages tied to the name Tyler McDonough appeared on Twitter and Facebook. Peters and Greene knew that “McDonough” was the last name on a driver’s license in a wallet found at the scene. Ando now felt as certain as he could, without an official pronouncement, that McDonough was the person dead at the end of Rohs Street. Still, Ando believed that this instinct wasn’t enough to publish. The Cincinnati Police Department had not yet made the Incident Report available to the press.
Ando punched the name Tyler McDonough into Facebook and found what appeared to be a suicide note— “the most devastating, heart wrenching note,” as Peters described it. It was time-stamped May 1, earlier that morning. Reporters and editors gathered around the screen and gasped. Eventually, the page went blank, as is Facebook policy when dealing with what the company calls “suicidal content.”
The note felt dangerous to Peters and Ando. “That was something that still affects me,” says Ando. They chose not to quote or report the Facebook post in follow-up stories about the fatality, which police would officially describe with one sentence: “On May 1, 2011, Tyler McDonough entered onto property at 2222 Chickasaw Street, climbed the transmission tower and fell to the ground causing his death.”
But in publishing their original story as breaking news, the News Record had unintentionally broken with journalistic standards for the reporting of possible suicides and stumbled into a space full of professional dilemmas. In 1994, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had published a consensus set of recommendations for the reporting of suicide that linked what they call “suicide contagion” to sensational news reporting. Suicide contagion, or the copycat suicide model, posits that deaths by suicide can be correlated to the learning of suicide-related behaviors.
The CDC, therefore, advised against “describing technical details about the method of suicide,” which the agency described as giving the at-risk a “how-to” lesson, and also discouraged prominent coverage of suicide events, which the agency said could “promote and maintain a preoccupation with suicide among at-risk persons, especially among persons 15-24 years of age.”
Media outlets from The Guardian to Buzzfeed to The Baltimore Sun developed additional policies for exercising “particular care” and “using good judgment” when reporting the subject. Most publications, for example, will not publish a suicide victim’s name, and many will not deem a suicide of a non-public figure to be worthy of a story.
“There is an ironic and destructive clash between the real fear of suicide contagion—of glamorizing suicide and tipping the scales for someone who might be leaning in that direction—and of the need for suicide realities to be out there in the public: for suicide to be reported and understood,” says Celia Watson Seupel, a journalist who covers suicide. Seupel personally fought Penn State’s college newspaper, The Daily Collegian, to publish the name of her son when he died by suicide in 2012 at the age of 21. The Daily Collegian, the publication informed her, didn’t report on any suicide as a matter of policy. Incensed, she purchased ad space in the paper and published an obituary that she wrote herself: “My beautiful son, Spencer Watson Seupel, of High Falls, New York took his own life…”
There are some suicide experts who quibble with the CDC’s hardline position of voluntarily restricting speech to reduce contagion. “A free press is pretty paramount,” said noted psychologist and suicide reseacher Thomas Joiner. “But I am of a position on these issues that is pretty centrist,” he added. “A lot of the field has moved pretty far in one way in that my peers say we have to be extremely careful, extremely responsible with reporting, never mentioning any detail. And that’s not where I’m at with it. Needless details, those are probably unwise. But things that inform and tell the truth, those can be for the public good themselves, so long as it helps people understand that suicide is not in any way easy or a relief or romantic or any of that. You can scare people off of it, actually.”
In 2012, the CDC collaborated with a range of suicide prevention groups to sign off on its most explicit set of reporting strategies. “Instead of this,” the report read, “Do this,” with an associated list of bullet points. Instead of “prominent placement,” the document proposed, “Inform the audience without sensationalizing.” Instead of “Quoting/interviewing police…,” the report read, “Seek advice from suicide prevention experts.” By 2014, the Society of Professional Journalists had revised the “Do no harm” portion of its ethical code to include, “Be cautious about reporting suicides that do not involve a public place or a public person.”
It’s little wonder, then, that a college newspaper like The Daily Collegian would flinch at reporting a fellow student dying by suicide in 2012. A newsworthy suicide story, deemed safe for public distribution, walks a line so fine that some publications cannot grasp it and therefore avoid the risk entirely.
Without question, the News Record’s story had infringed virtually all CDC and suicide prevention lobby recommendations for reporting suicides. The News Record stated a method of death, quoted police officers and witnesses, described an appalling scene in detail, and made an incident that came to be understood as a suicide a top story.
Yet both Peters and Ando continue to believe that these infringements were unavoidable and necessary for the event to be understood by readers. What happened to the victim was twisted and sordid and gruesome and unfair, they agreed. It also happened to be, they felt, a true experience shared by too many to be overlooked. “The biggest lesson that all of us learned was that the truth isn’t pretty,” says Ando. “He’s [the victim has] definitely changed my life more than any other source has up to this point,” Peters says.
As the editorial team formatted the print issue for the next day, reactions to their online story went from immature to angry. Andie Anderson, a blogger whose “A Blonde’s Guide to the World” had a campus readership, tweeted “@NewsRecord_UC has disappointed me. Extremely Disappointed in Bad Journalism.” She followed up with, “please change the publishing of the story.” Sweet Libertine, a local cosmetics provider, tweeted, “Horrific details are written with no respect to friends or family” alongside the Twitter hashtag #UCHackjournalism.
Phones lit up in the student newsroom. Ando’s editor-in-chief email inbox was flooded. One of McDonough’s relatives wrote in a Facebook comment box attached to the News Record story, “I am really pissed that someone would refer to my cousin as a pile of body parts.” Ironically, the News Record had yet to publish the victim’s name. Other comments called the story “inconsiderate and amateur,” “unprofessional and disrespectful,” and “SO GROSS.” Vitriol rained on the first name listed on the story byline: Sean Peters.
A person identifying himself as Tyler McDonough’s brother commented anonymously on the News Record’s website and called the story offensive. A friend of Peters at the UC radio station accused him of being a “yellow journalist.” One reader referred to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics and quoted the “minimize harm” section at the newspaper: “Pursuit of news is not a license for arrogance.”
Tyler McDonough’s parents emailed Ando with their complaints. He took care with his response, explaining that it was the News Record’s duty to report tragic events accurately. “I won’t apologize for running it,” he wrote in his Off the News Record blog, summarizing these emails. “If anything, I apologize to the man. I will not apologize for doing my job, but I will apologize to a man who met his end in that way.”
Ando stood by his reporters. “It came to very personal blows,” he recalled, “with people calling out both Sean and Erin, talking about, ‘What do you call this journalism?’” Peters reeled, taking each reaction seriously. Doubting questions naturally sprung to his mind: Why should the facts of a scene be offensive? Can stating a truth be arrogant? Was he missing the compassion some thought was lacking? Had he damaged his credibility, the foundation of his ability to be a journalist? “I became,” Peters recalls, “a notorious writer within the university.”Robert W. Fieseler is the 2019 NLGJA Journalist of the Year and the author of Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation, which won the 2019 Edgar Award in Best Fact Crime. He lives in New Orleans.