Suicide is still a taboo in our society. That was what Steve Blow, retired longtime columnist of The Dallas Morning News, tried to convey in a piece he wrote in 2010 that landed him and the News in court, sued for defamation.
Last week, Blow and the News won the libel lawsuit brought by the parents of Paul Tatum, a 17-year-old who took his own life. Paul’s parents, John and Mary Ann, said the newspaper defamed them by implying they were to blame for Paul’s suicide.
Nowhere in Blow’s piece did he direct any outrage or finger-pointing at the parents. In fact, none of the Tatums was the focus of Blow’s writing, nor were they named. Blow had enough hints at what he was talking about so curious readers could look up the paid obituary the Tatums purchased to memorialize their son. The obituary avoided saying how Tatum died, and in the column, Blow called it what it was.
“A paid obituary in this newspaper reported that a popular high school student died from injuries received in a car crash,” he wrote. “There was a car crash, all right, but death came from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a time of remorse afterward.”
According to an opinion from the Texas Supreme Court that reinstated a lower court ruling that favored the Morning News, the Tatums contend their son showed no sign of mental illness or suicidal behavior. They believe the suicide was caused directly by head trauma he suffered in the car crash.
The column, overall, probed why we are so uncomfortable about suicide. It was Blow’s assertion that a fundamental misunderstanding about what leads one to suicide causes more grief and suicide. Not talking about suicide is bad.
The parents, according to the lawsuit, took that to mean they were in some way responsible for their teen son’s death. The Tatums claimed Blow implied they were shady for publishing the obituary without noting the real cause of death, that they ignored treating Paul for a mental illness and that they caused the situation to worsen.
The Texas Supreme Court dismissed the case because Blow did not defame the Tatums, neither explicitly nor indirectly. The gist of his column was not to call them out. Rather, he used their situation as a way to illustrate his overall point. And because the column was as an opinion, Blow and his former paper could not have defamed the Tatums.
The court did not discount that Blow’s reporting and gathering could be considered “afoul of certain journalistic, ethical and other standards.” Blow did not reach out to the Tatums before publishing the column, and that is usually frowned upon in this industry.
In the column, Blow mentioned that even his own paper’s news reporters stopped short of doing a story about Tatum once they found out his death was a suicide.
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“Newspapers don’t write about suicides unless they involve a public figure or happen in a very public way,” he wrote in 2010.
Donnis Baggett, the executive vice president of the Texas Press Association, which supported the News in court, says that had the court ruled in favor of the Tatums, it would have chilled the way journalists report about highly sensitive issues.
“Part of the press’ job is to take up matters that are difficult to discuss. It’s part of what we do,” he says. “It’s our duty to address complex issues, and sometimes that cannot be done without making someone uncomfortable.”
First Amendment proponents called the Texas high court’s dismissal a win for journalism and said the court reaffirmed the value of diving into troublesome topics, to explore possible solutions rather than allow problems to persist — which, from the beginning, was Blow’s overarching point.