Unlike so many who work as journalists, I refuse to label two recent and much-publicized deaths in the Show-Me State as suicides until those in charge of investigating those deaths make such declarations public.
During the past four days, I’ve written and published three articles related to the tragic deaths of Tom Schweich, 54, a second-term Missouri state auditor and declared Republican candidate for governor Feb. 26, and his official spokesperson, Robert “Spence” Jackson, 44, only 30 days later. In the most recent article, I revealed two facts other media outlets have, thusfar, failed to share with their audiences.
First, I shared a statement received via email Monday from Dr. Mary E. Case, St. Louis County’s chief medical examiner. Among other things, she explained that the autopsy, including complete toxicology testing, is complete. She did not, however, say that the death had been ruled a suicide.
Second, I shared a statement received from Clayton (Mo.) Police Chief Kevin Murphy. In an email message about the investigation into Schweich’s death Monday, he wrote, “Currently, the investigation is not closed.” As was the case with Dr. Case, Chief Murphy did not say that the death had been ruled a suicide.
Many in the local, state and national news media, however, have been quick to gloss over the fact no one in any official capacity to make such a statement has said definitively that Schweich committed suicide. [FYI: I have yet to look into the matter of whether any such official statement has been issued regarding Jackson’s death.]
The most recent in-state example appeared in the Sedalia Democrat April 3. One didn’t have to read beyond the headline of a column by Bob Satnan to see that the editors at the central Missouri newspaper were comfortable publishing a statement not backed up by anyone authorized to confirm it: Lessons to be learned from 2 suicides.
Virginia Young of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch waited until the seventh paragraph of her April 1 Political Fix column, but she still used the “S” word without its use substantiated by anyone in an official capacity.
Media outlets outside of the state have done the same thing.
The “S” word appeared in the headline and first paragraph of an April Fools Day piece, Two Suicides Rock Missouri Politics, in The Daily Beast. Notably, the piece was written by Missouri’s own Eli Yokely. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he should have known better than to use the term without official confirmation.
Perhaps things have changed inside journalism school classrooms during the 30-plus years since I received my degree in the subject. I do know, however, that I would have received a failing grade had I used the word, suicide, without verifying it by way of an official report and attributing that verification to the individual or agency that provided it. Until such verification is provided by someone authorized to offer it, I will use terms such as alleged, apparent, possible and suspect in front of the the word, suicide.
Stay tuned for more updates. To see previous articles on this topic, click here.
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