Fox News Suicide Story 'Ham-Handed' And A 'Political Overreach'

Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

Fox News drew anger and protest this week after it posted a story juxtaposing a suicide at George Washington University with President Barack Obama's speech there on Wednesday.

The move also sparked criticism from several veteran newsroom leaders, including one who called it "ham-handed." The editor of the student newspaper said it "jarred" many students.

The negative fallout, which included a Facebook page created to protest the report, forced Fox to remove the story Thursday afternoon, according to the student paper, The GW Hatchet:

Fox News removed the story just before 4 p.m., and the link now goes to a "not found" page.

University spokeswoman Candace Smith said the University reached out to Fox News about the story.

"We contacted Fox News to express our concern that the story drew conclusions that were not accurate," Smith said. "It was their decision to take the story down, and we believe it was a wise one."

According to a Fox News employee, who spoke on background because they were not permitted to speak in an official capacity, Fox removed the story due to student and University reaction, even though nothing in the story was factually inaccurate. has posted an image of the original Fox story, which stated:

GWU Suicide Tragically Coincides with Obama Speech

George Washington University students in Washington, D.C. learned of a tragic coincidence of timing on their campus Wednesday. As President Obama delivered a speech on deficit reduction in the Jack Morton Auditorium, one of the university's students committed suicide in his dorm room across campus.

Fox News has learned that the male student was likely a junior at the school.

"I am deeply saddened to report that the university has been notified of the death of one of our students," GW President Steven Knapp said in a message to his students, faculty and staff. "The student was found in his room this afternoon at the City Hall residence hall," he said.

GW officials tell Fox that the incident took place around 2pm, which happened to be at the same time that President Obama was speaking. As of this writing, Fox has not been able to obtain reaction from the White House.

"The Metropolitan Police Department is investigating the student's death in coordination with the GW Police Department," Knapp wrote. "At this time, we have no indication that the death was the result of a criminal act. We will release more information when it becomes available."

DC police officials tell Fox that the death has, in fact, been ruled a suicide.

Knapp took note of solemn moment, adding, "On behalf of the entire university community, I would like to express our sorrow and extend my condolences to the student's family and friends."

Fox News staffer Kelly Chernenkoff, who wrote the original story, could not be reached Friday.

Lauren French, a junior and editor of the GW Hatchet, said students were "jarred" by the Fox approach.

"I believe some students believe [Fox was] trying to link the two and another larger group just felt it wasn't tactful to link them on a politics page," she said. "There is a small number of students who believe Fox News was trying to connect the two. This community was kind of jarred by what Fox posted. They are still dealing with the loss of a student, to have Fox do this offput a lot of people."

Asked for her journalistic view, French said there was no reason for Fox to connect the events:

"We kept it separate, it was two separate stories for us. I don't think Fox News was trying to say that because Obama was on campus the student killed himself. But I wouldn't have run that story because they were two separate stories."

She also said several GW alums at Fox were involved in pressuring the network to remove the story, but offered no names.

A group led by GW student Danny Leimberg created a Facebook page aimed at protesting the story.

Titled, 'Hold Chernenkoff and FOX News Accountable' the page urged a protest of Fox News and sought to organize a rally that occurred Thursday.

"After reading the article I think it's ridiculous they had that in the politics section in their page, much less implying the relationship between the two," Leimberg told the Hatchet. "Members of the GW community should be outraged, and his family shouldn't have to see something like that on the politics blog."

The Facebook page had more than 2,900 members as of Friday afternoon.

Fox News officials declined to comment Friday, instead referring Media Matters to a Politico story in which a Fox spokesperson is quoted saying:

We were contacted by the university and decided it would be best to take down the story, although nothing was factually inaccurate.

Several veteran newsroom leaders who spoke with Media Matters criticized Fox's original story

In an email to Media Matters, Tom Fiedler, former editor of The Miami Herald and currently dean of the College of Communication at Boston University, wrote:

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised anymore by the warped news judgment of Fox News editors.The story would have been valid only if there had been a link between the tragic suicide and the President's appearance. There wasn't, according to Fox's own reporting. To connect the two was an egregious example of the network's political overreach.

Pam Fine, former managing editor of The Indianapolis Star and The Star-Tribune in Minneapolis - and currently a professor at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications - weighed in with a similar view:

The blog posting was obviously ham-handed. It looks as if she was stretching for some kind of fresh posting and made a connection between two unrelated events. Fox was smart to pull it down since it fed the perception the posting was agenda-driven and not a valid, newsworthy confluence of two events occurring at the same time on campus.

The Bottom line: It was a misleading posting, hopefully a mistake that the blogger and her editors will learn from.The good news is that the GW community reacted effectively to drive the news organization to reconsider its efforts and make a "fix" by taking it down. For learning purposes, it would be helpful for the blogger or someone at Fox to talk about how and why she decided to connect the suicide and the speech in the first place.

Gail Shister, former television columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer and currently a columnist at, offered this e-mail:

While certainly in questionable taste, this hardly rises to the level of advancing a political agenda. My gut is that the reporter was reaching for a lede and stepped over the ledge of decency. While it was a tragic coincidence that the estimated time of the student's death coincided with Obama's speech on campus, I fail to see why it should have been included in this story.

Meanwhile, Robert Steele, an instructor at The Poynter Institute, had many questions for Fox News on why it chose to act in such a way:

Knowing only what I now know based on the Huffington Post story, I have some real concerns over how FOX News handled this story of a suicide on the George Washington University campus. But I need to know more information in order to make any further judgment about the journalistic and ethical decisions made -- or not made -- by FOX News.

Here are some questions I would ask the journalists and news executives at FOX News to help understand why they did what they did with this story?

What was the journalistic purpose of reporting the story of the suicide of the GW student?

Did FOX News do any independent reporting on this story or did FOX News obtain the information from another news source?

Does FOX News routinely report suicides of college students? If so, what criteria is used to determine newsworthiness? If not, what was the motivating factor in reporting this instance of suicide on a college campus?

Did FOX News believe there was any connection between the death of the student and the appearance of President Obama on the GW campus that day? If so, what is that connection?

Who wrote that headline for the story and what was the journalistic purpose of that headline?

Who made the decision to pull the story and for what reason? What is the FOX News policy on taking down posted stories?

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