Teen death story igniting media feud in central Minnesota

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.

  • jay sieling

    I’ve been watching this develop since last weekend. In some ways this is playing out in a similar fashion to the national media story about the Tuscon shooting. Someone claimed amped up rhetoric caused it; someone surmises bullying caused Lance’s death. When no direct cause can be established, lots of defensiveness swirls around. Regardless if the violence in Tuscon was related to the vitriolic tone of political rhetoric, it is important that civility prevails. Regardless of the cause of Lance’s death, it is important that the issue of bullying is addressed…everywhere.

    I teach Interpersonal Communication here in Alexandria. This week we’ve begun discussing communication and self concept and self esteem. Bullying is an ego busting action that shouldn’t be tolerated, and should never escalate to the point that someone actually feels they are better off dead. The good that has come from this is that students are talking, taking some action, standing up to bullying behavior. That’s okay. But just as in the national story about Tuscon, a calm move toward civility is impeded by a whirlwind of defensiveness. I see that same response in this little media feud. Both media outlets are accusing each other of reporting selective facts. The story is suddenly about the media.

    I find it interesting and sad at the same time.

    It shouldn’t take any shootout or death to shed the light on the need for more civility in discourse and in our daily dealings with each other. We seem to forget about the Golden Rule too quickly, and we certainly have lost some sense of accountability and responsibility for our actions and how they affect others.

    Perhaps the Echo Press is being selective, cautious, one sided. Perhaps KSAX relied too much on unsubstantiated opinion and sensationalized a bit. But rather than point fingers and blame each other…or claim ‘they did it too’ (the KSAX response seemed almost a Palinesque reply like the Tuscon response) a sounder approach might be for both to admit their faults and pledge to do better.

    The students at Jefferson High School wore purple to show solidarity and support each other last Tuesday. That was Lance’s favorite color. The halls of the high school were reportedly a sea of purple. As John Donne said: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind” The cause does not change the degree to which we are diminished. A suicide or a medical condition shouldn’t matter. A talented young man is gone and the community grieves.

    President Obama’s words from Tuscon should still echo here: “..when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations – to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless”

    It is that nature that has led to this media feud. But take heed to the President’s further words: “But what we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together. ”

    The thoughts from the Tuscon speech seem to fit aptly to our community in this situation. “I believe we can be better…. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us. ”

    I think the media in this community can be better too.