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Not All Leaks Are Created Equal

Brace yourselves for a whole lot of scolding columns about the media's irresponsible coverage of Terrell Owens and his emergency trip to the hospital Tuesday night. What was first reported to be a bad reaction to pain medication the Dallas Cowboys star took for an injury, exploded into a frenzy of news that Owens had attempted suicide then turned back to the "bad reaction" story when the receiver himself addressed the media looking not at all like a man ready to take his own life. The press is almost certainly going to get hammered relentlessly for, in the minds of critics, rushing irresponsibly to report the suicide angle.

The critics will be absolutely correct in taking the press to task. Unfortunately, they won't focus on the whole problem. There's more wrong here than running with an official police report, which stated that Owens himself had claimed he was depressed and trying to kill himself. It's a willingness to suspend suspicion in the face of what appears to be a great "story." But not all leaks are created equal.

Embedded within the press is the idea that information obtained in secret is so holy that we've sometimes stopped questioning its worth and credibility. The police report in this case certainly appeared straightforward and explosive (you can read the pdf version here). The Dallas police were contacted by emergency responders because they suspected Owens had overdosed. According to the report, he responded affirmatively to questions about an attempt to harm himself. His publicist, who originally called 911, was described as having tried to remove pills from his mouth.

It certainly sounds like a suicide attempt, so why not shout it from the rooftops, right? Well, what ever happened to the importance of asking questions, if not from sources or those involved, then simple common-sense queries? Was this police report a first-hand witness account of what happened? No, it was a summary of interviews with Owens' publicist and emergency responders. Was there any medical evidence to bolster the report's charge? No, because such things are still a matter of personal privacy for most of us, even football stars are protected from having their medical details revealed. Did that stop the spread of rumors that Owens had his stomach pumped? Nope, not at all.

But nobody said, "wait a minute here, all we have is this police report, maybe the responsible thing would be to try to find out some more information. There may be more to all this than we can see at this moment." Nope, media outlet after media outlet ran with the story that controversial sports figure Terrell Owens attempted to commit suicide (according to an official police report, of course). The headline on read "Death Wish," and they weren't alone in such hype. That quickly descended into discussions and speculation about his mental state and his reasons for doing it. Not "if," but "why."

I began seeing cracks in this story pretty early on when a spokesperson for the Dallas police department came out to address the media. While the spokesman didn't say much, he did make two very important points that should have started to clue the media in to backing off the story at least a little bit. First, he emphasized that the report being cited should never have been leaked to the media. To me, that was code for – this is just a report, it's not the final word on anything and it's being misrepresented.

The second thing the policeman said, which nobody seemed to pick up on, was that the matter had been investigated and it had been determined there was no criminal activity. I'm no legal expert and have no idea whether suicide is considered a crime in Texas but I do know this much – if police had suspected some purposeful attempt at harming Owens they would not have dismissed it. Such things require a little more investigation to determine exactly who intended the harm – I've seen enough thrillers to know that.

But nobody wanted to think about those kinds of things, the "suicide" story was just too good. Of course, when Owens himself addressed the media later in the day, he looked about as depressed and suicidal as someone on their way to day spa. His countenance and explanation quickly took the air out of the story and it appeared quite reasonable that he simply had a strange reaction to a concoction of supplements and pain medication he was taking in order to get back onto the football field. Even now, however, there are plenty of speculators unable to let go of what seemed like such a great story.

Look, I have no idea what happened. I don't know whether Owens took too many pills on purpose or by accident. I don't know what his state of mind is and I ,frankly, do not care about it. What I do know is that this whole episode once again exposes the media's willingness and determination to find the best "story," not the best set of facts. The press loves leaks because they give the appearance of valiant, crusading journalists uncovering secrets that someone doesn't want the rest of us to know.

When details of a national intelligence estimate about the nation's success in the war on terror are leaked, that's important information. Even in cases like that, though, there are enough questions about what has been leaked versus what wasn't leaked to raise some questions about the value of it (that's another post altogether). Such things are why anonymous sources and leaks are important to a free press. So is good, old-fashioned digging and reporting. Taking a police report and blowing it up into a dramatic story that turns out to be way more complicated is not so important. But such incidents are why the public rightly shrugs all of it off as media hype.

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