Covering Campus Suicide
You are a general-assignment reporter for a campus newspaper, The Student Times. The paper serves about 15,000 undergrads, 2,000 grad students and 1,500 full- and part-time faculty and staff at Midwestern University, an urban campus in Cityville.
The Student Times is published Monday through Friday. The paper circulates about 8,000 copies to campus buildings, to fraternities and sororities and to businesses such as coffee shops and convenience stores in neighborhoods near the university. The paper also has a website that can be updated at any time. It gets several thousand hits a day.
Midwestern University has a diverse student population. The largest percentages of undergraduate and graduate students are Caucasian, and the second-largest percentages are African American. About 5 percent of the student body is composed of international students. The Times staff is diverse in its race and ethnicity but has few students who are part of the university’s large Greek system. In fact, the relationship with the Greek system is touchy, as the paper has published series from time to time that point to problems in Greek system. The paper routinely deals with the campus police, including Public Information Officer Betsi Jorgensen.
It’s 11 a.m. Thursday. Your editor assigns you to check out an anonymous tip that a woman has died at the local chapter house of Alpha Alpha Alpha sorority. The person calling with the tip suggests that the woman may have taken her own life.
After getting your assignment, you head to the sorority, mindful that The Times has a 7 p.m. deadline for the paper but a continually updated website. You do not take a photographer but do you have your mobile “smart phone,” which has a camera.
AT THE SCENE THURSDAY, 11:30 A.M.
You arrive at Alpha Alpha Alpha. Three police cars are parked outside the house, and crime-scene tape is across the front entrance to the building. You approach an officer standing near the front door, identify yourself as a reporter for The Times and ask what’s happened. She tells you that police are conducting an investigation and suggests that you contact the department’s public information officer, Betsi Jorgensen, if you want additional information. The officer then asks you to step away from the door.
You take pictures of the building and of the crowd milling outside. You notice that women, some of whom appear to be crying, are entering through a rear door to the sorority. You unobtrusively take pictures of them as they approach the building.
You begin interviewing people who have gathered at the scene, drawn by the police presence. One student – not a member of the sorority – says that she had a text from a friend who knew a member of the sorority. The text said that a body had been discovered in the house earlier in the morning and that there were rumors that an Alpha Alpha Alpha member had taken her own life. The student refuses to give you her last name but says her first name is Bethany. She also says it would be OK for you to call her back later in the day and gives you the number to her mobile phone.
Using your own mobile phone, you check the sorority’s Facebook page. It has this statement:
“Today we are mourning the death of one of our sisters. Please respect our privacy in this time of sorrow.”
It’s now 12:30 p.m. Your editor texts you and asks when you will have a story for The Times’ website and what it will say. What do you tell the editor?
BACK IN THE OFFICE THURSDAY, 1 P.M.
At the office, you start making calls, taking a one-hour break to attend your 2:30 p.m. class.
- You call Jorgensen. She confirms that a death occurred at Alpha Alpha Alpha. She says that the dead person has been identified as a sorority member. She won’t give you the name of the deceased until the family has been notified. She confirms that the body has been removed from the house and taken to the coroner’s office, but she will not provide additional information until officers at the scene have written their incident report. She guesses that won’t be done until around 8 p.m. tonight, or perhaps later.
- You call the sorority house phone, but there’s no answer. You find the name of the president (Marti Smith) online and send an e-mail. You receive an automatic reply that says: “I have no comment at this time on recent events that have occurred at Alpha Alpha Alpha.”
- You call the coroner’s office. A spokesman confirms that an autopsy will be performed. No additional information at this time.
About 3:30 p.m., you check a reverse phone directory and learn that the number for Bethany, the student whom you interviewed earlier, is registered to Bethany Anne Fletcher. You call Fletcher, who answers and confirms her full name. She tells you that she has heard more about the death, including a name for the woman who died. She agrees to tell you what she’s heard if you agree not to identify her as your source. Though you know that could limit your ability to use the information she might supply, you agree.
Fletcher says a friend in the sorority told her that the dead student’s name is “Melanie Martin” – she’s not sure how to spell the name – and that one of Martin’s sorority sisters found her in her room. She was not breathing. An empty prescription bottle of sleeping pills was found near her. The sorority sister – Bethany doesn’t know her name – called 911. According to Bethany, her friend said the sorority sister also found a note near the body. Bethany’s friend said the sorority sister didn’t talk specifically about the contents of the note but said that it suggested the woman had taken her own life.
You check the university student database and do not find a Melanie Martin. You do find this entry: Melanie Marie Marten, a junior majoring in sociology.
You hurriedly search Facebook and find a Melanie Marten at Midwestern. Marten has described herself as a double major in anthropology and sociology. The page makes a reference to her 21st birthday last month. She has 53 friends. From other posts on the page, you infer that she has a younger sister at the university; is active in two university clubs (U-Recycle and a co-ed inter-mural softball team); and is a member of Alpha Alpha Alpha.
You search Facebook memorial pages for “Melanie Marten” and “Mel Martin.” You find a handful of tributes mourning the death of Mel Martin. Some of the tributes are from people who have identified themselves as Midwestern University students.
You place one more call to Jorgensen’s office. She doesn’t answer, but an officer who identifies himself as Billy Stinson does. He says Jorgensen is away from the desk, getting dinner. You ask him if the dead student at Alpha Alpha Alpha is Melanie Marten. It sounds as if he puts his hand over the phone, asks someone else that question and confirms that it is. You ask for the cause of death, and Stinson realizes that you’re a reporter. He tells you that all information about the “incident” at Alpha Alpha Alpha must come from Jorgensen, and he hangs up.
It’s 5:30 p.m. Your editor wants a story for tomorrow’s paper. Based on what you’ve learned so far, what will it say?
BACK IN THE OFFICE, FRIDAY 1 P.M.
Though The Times doesn’t publish weekend editions, you have begun to work on your article for Monday’s paper. (If warranted, you’ll also update The Times website.)
Your first task is to visit Jorgensen, the public information officer. Detectives have filed their incident report, which is a public document that you can read. You ask for it. Jorgensen also has notes from the detectives’ investigation, and she’s willing to share some information from those notes. You learn the following:
From the incident report:
- The name of the dead student: Melanie Marie Marten. She is 21, and her official residence was Alpha Alpha Alpha. Marten was found unconscious about 9:30 a.m. on Thursday by a roommate. The roommate’s name has been redacted. Marten was taken to Cityville General Hospital. She was pronounced dead about 11:15 a.m. A note and two empty prescription bottles were found near the body.
From an interview with Jorgensen:
- The police are not conducting a criminal investigation of the death. Detectives tentatively believe the cause of death to be suicide. They suspect Marten died of an overdose of prescription drugs, though the coroner’s office will determine the official cause of death.
From a colleague at The Times and from Facebook tributes, you get the names of two more women who are members of Alpha Alpha Alpha – Cheriya Brown and Megan Wong. You call the sorority and ask to speak to either of them or to Smith, the sorority president.
Smith comes to the phone. She agrees to talk with you if you agree to put in the paper that a short memorial gathering will take place Monday at 6:30 p.m. outside the sorority, which is at 16th Street and Main Street. You agree.
From an interview with Smith:
- The Monday gathering will celebrate Marten’s life; Marten was a double major in anthropology and sociology; she has a sister, Jordan, who was her roommate and also is a member of the sorority; the information on Facebook about the two clubs to which Marten belonged is correct; she had been a member of the house since coming to Midwestern two years ago. She will not speculate on why Marten took her life or discuss the note or prescription bottles. She won’t give you the phone numbers for Brown and Wong but agrees to ask them to call you.
Wong calls back about an hour later.
From an interview with Wong:
- She was Marten’s best friend; Marten was a wonderful, caring sorority sister who was liked by everyone in the sorority. Quote: “Everyone wanted to be her best friend.”
- Marten had been “hit hard” by the death of a friend, Trevor Johnsen, in a traffic accident two months ago. Quote: “She was never the same after that. Mel and Trevor were like brother and sister.”
- Marten also had hurt her back during a volleyball game three weeks ago and had been taking painkillers for the injury. After telling you this, Wong asks for this to be “off the record.”
- Next, you re-check Marten’s Facebook page, which remains open. You see that a number of publicly accessible Facebook “notes” are excerpts from an equally accessible blog, which, while anonymous, seems to belong to her. It has several recent emotional posts about Johnsen, the last of which appears to be a poem on death. You also find a number of photos of Marten, also publicly accessible. You look again at the growing number of tributes to Marten on her Facebook page. Here are three that catch your eye:
- From Emily Masterson: “Mel is in a better place. She’s gone, but at least she’s not in pain. She’s with Trevor.”
- From Doug Bidder: “God has called Mel. Finally, peace be with her.”
- From Marti Smith: “Come to a celebration of our sister’s life. Monday at 6:30 outside the house.”
You contact the coroner, Louise Smythe. She has ruled the death suicide. She says Marten died of an overdose – probably 25 pills of the painkiller Oxycodone.
You want to write the majority of your story this afternoon. Who else should you interview? What should your story say? What would be appropriate visuals for your story?
This curriculum module is a product of Randal Beam's Dart Academic Fellowship, held at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in June, 2010.