There’s quite a media spat playing out in the Alexandria area following the death last weekend of a teenager, which some said was a suicide, and which his family said was a known medical condition (I wrote about this on News Cut earlier this week).
What we know is that Lance Lundsten is dead. What we don’t know is why.
Several media in the area cited his friends in stories saying Lundsten was bullied for being gay, and that may have contributed to a suicide. The teen’s father called media saying the coroner told him the death was due to an enlarged heart.
On that, the Alexandria Echo Press reported the death was because of a medical condition. KSAX, the local ABC affiliate in Alexandria, noted the father’s story, but then quoted the coroner:
Douglas County Medical Examiner Dr. Mark Spanbauer said the preliminary autopsy report showed the teen did not die from an enlarged heart.
The teen’s heart was slightly enlarged, but that finding was a secondary finding to an undetermined cause, according to Spanbauer.
Spanbauer said what actually caused Lundsten’s heart to slightly swell was not yet known, as the final autopsy report was still in progress.
The Echo Press newspaper stayed with the father’s version of the story, but then amped up the dispute with a blistering editorial against KSAX and Facebook.
Unfortunately, whipped up by the Facebook frenzy, the distorted story of Lundsten’s death took on a life of its own. A TV station reported about the Facebook speculations and it snowballed quickly from there, getting reported by other media outlets as well – a sad case of media reporting what other media were reporting, even though it was untrue.
Some Jefferson High School students threatened a walk out, believing the school wasn’t taking the bullying issue seriously enough.
Anti-bullying groups were quick to pick up on the death, spreading the story further. U.S. Senator Al Franken called attention to the incident to drum up support for anti-bullying legislation. Images of Lundsten connected to headlines of bullying and suicide popped up all over the Internet – even on a website in France.
It shouldn’t have happened this way.
Echo Press editor Al Edenloff confirmed today the newspaper hasn’t contacted the coroner, but based its editorial on the statement from the dead teen’s family:
According to Lance’s family, the coroner said Lance had cardiac edema and that no other contributing factor had been found during the preliminary investigation (note the word “preliminary”). The family said that all of the prescription pills in the home had been accounted for and there was no indication of drug use. However, as we stated in our story, it will take six to eight weeks for the complete toxicology results are determined. The KSAX story squares, in part, with what the family told us — that Lance had cardiac edema. No one knows the exact cause of death yet, which the coroner also told KSAX. The cause won’t be determined for another six to eight weeks and no one knows what that will reveal. We talked to the family on Tuesday morning and KSAX talked at the coroner at a later date. Its story came out Wednesday. To answer your question directly: No, we did not contact the coroner because at this point, no one, including him, knows the cause of death yet. We do know, however, that the coroner told the family Lance had cardiac edema and that’s what we reported. We will be contacting the coroner when the results come back.
That requires a response from Christi Jessee, the news director if KSAX.
I find it very hypocritical that the Echo Press accuses KSAX-TV of reporting rumor and speculation, when it seems to be knowingly perpetuating it. Selective facts have been reported, but the most important facts released by official sources in this case are, deliberately it seems, ignored. The truth is not always comfortable. But journalists should not ignore facts in an effort to comfort a grieving family.
Dr. Spanbauer was not available when MPR News attempted to contact him today.