Online Harrassment-A Hoax, a Suicide-A Journalistic Dilemma
Malone, Roy, St. Louis Journalism Review
It was a sad story--Megan Meier, 13, of Dardenne Prairie, committed suicide last year after being bullied and taunted through messages on her MySpace profile.
The messages came from a boy named Josh Evans, who Megan did not know but seemed, at first, to show an interest in her. The messages became more cruel, and then came the nastiest one: "The world would be a better place without you."
Megan hanged herself in a closet without knowing Josh was the creation of neighbors down the street--a woman, her daughter and an 18-year-old female employee. Megan had a falling out with the daughter, and the cyberspace targeting followed.
Steve Pokin, a writer for the Sub-urban Journals of St. Charles County, learned of the case but held off writing about it until charges might be filed. But police, prosecutors and the FBI said they could find no law had been broken. Pokin and his editor, Dave Bundy, and their lawyer, Marvin Lindmark, hashed over the story and decided not to name the neighbors whose hoax some say contributed to the death. A judgment call.
Their reasoning--there were no arrests, no charges filed, no civil suit, the daughter was a juvenile suspect and it was not clear who actually sent the messages, although the neighbor admitted the scheme to police.
Pokin's story was skillfully written, with all the drama and pain that Megan experienced and the heartache of her parents, Ron and Tina Meier. There was something else he conveyed--simmering outrage. When the story appeared in the Journal on Nov. 11, that outrage couldn't be contained.
Readers got on the Journal's Web site and left messages calling the neighbors vile names. Some wanted them beaten or killed. Who were the culprits? Why weren't they named?
Pokin and the Journal took a beating, being called cowards for withholding names and for not allowing the neighbors' name to appear on the newspaper Web site.
The story went fast and far--to The New York Times and CNN. NBC's "Today Show," and ABC's "Good Morning America" had the parents on. …