Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson: Waiting for facts kept suicide story straight

It was a story nobody took pleasure in publishing, but one we worked for more than a week to get into the paper.

In stark detail, the lead story in Tuesday’s paper laid out the horrific timeline of a 13-year-old girl planning and carrying out her own death. It was built on facts verified by police working the case since Izabel Laxamana jumped off Tacoma’s South 48th Street overpass on May 29.

Verifying the facts took a long time and put us far behind other media that ran with this story apparently unencumbered by the need for verification.

They made it a national sensation. They also made it wrong.

Our coverage began with a Friday afternoon report of a possible suicide. Traffic was snarled on I-5 after someone fell onto the roadway from the overpass above.

We don’t often write about suicides. We generally consider these private matters and understand that publicity can lead to copycats.

Sometimes we write about them when it’s a public person or when it’s a private person taking their life in a public way, like this. We posted a four-sentence story online. We did not name the person. We would follow up.

The next day, a story appeared on the local blog tacomastories.com: “Public Shaming May Have Led to A Young Girl’s Suicide.” It described a video showing a girl whose hair had apparently been cut off and a man’s voice saying this was punishment for her getting “messed up.” The blogger said the girl in the video was the person who jumped off the bridge. He didn’t name her. He didn’t say where he got his information.

He also wrote: “I don’t have much interest in increasing the public shaming her father has already given her,” and went on decry the social media phenomenon of public shaming, in which parents videotape themselves punishing their children and then post the videos online for everyone to see. His story suggested the father of the girl who jumped posted the video to shame her.

With that, the story took off online. A Facebook page “Justice for Izabel,” appeared, naming Izabel Laxamana and garnering thousands of “likes.” It filled with posts about public shaming. Commenters called for charges against her father.

We called police and the school district. We monitored social media and reached out to commenters. We talked to the blogger. If the allegations were true, they warranted news coverage, but so far we could verify nothing.

The next Monday, the medical examiner confirmed the girl had died and ruled her death a suicide. Tacoma Schools confirmed she was a Giaudrone Middle School student. They were offering counseling services to students. We wrote a story with the few facts we had, and as per our standard, did not name the girl. We kept reporting.

Online, the story exploded onto at least three dozen sites.

Inquisitr quoted tacomastories.com and wrote: “A beautiful 13-year-old girl with long and flowing black hair was publicly shamed by her father for an unknown offense. The father decided that a proper punishment for the offense would be to chop off her gorgeous black hair and post the video online.”

Jezebel.com’s headline read: “13-Year-Old Girl Dies By Suicide After Dad Shares Public Shaming Video.”

Online traffic to our stories skyrocketed as the other sites rounded out their unsubstantiated theories with links to us for verified facts. Commenters flocked to our stories, as well, but we soon turned off commenting because so many were vilifying the father.

Pressure mounted, from both inside the newsroom and the community, for The News Tribune to report on the video.

The problem was, we couldn’t verify that dad shot the video or posted the video or that it was his voice in the video. We talked to mourners at several vigils, but decided not to rely on the third-hand hearsay of 13-year-old classmates, which in the end proved quite unreliable. No authorities were talking. Neither was the family.

We met daily to try to find a way into this story that was overtaking our community. We could have — and some say should have — written about the social media storm itself, but we couldn’t do that without implicating the father. The Associated Press held back for the same reason.

Days later, Tacoma Schools spoke out to deny rumors that Izabel was bullied or shamed at Giaudrone. We wrote a story and named the girl; her name by this time was no secret. We did not write about the video, because we still couldn’t verify the facts surrounding it.

On Monday, we pressed Tacoma police again. Equally eager to stop the rumor-mongering, they shared the findings of their investigation.

Yes, police confirmed, it was dad’s voice in the video. Yes, it was Izabel in the video. The other media had been right about that.

But it was not Izabel’s dad who posted the video, police said. It was Izabel.

People may rightly say he shouldn’t have videotaped the incident at all, but her father did not share it with the world to shame her.

Police also confirmed that Izabel wrote eight letters before she jumped and said she didn’t want to besmirch the family’s name because of embarrassing things she had done. She said her dad was not to blame for her actions.

So we wrote the story of a teen suicide, something we almost never do, and published it right away.

We’ll never know what was going through Izabel’s mind in those moments before she jumped or how much the video her father shot — but didn’t post — weighed into her decisions.

I wish we hadn’t had to write the details of Izabel’s death. More than anything, I wish she hadn’t jumped at all. But I’m glad we waited and published only the facts as we got them.