On Facebook, I recently posted a photo of the staff of my old college newspaper. Several people asked me what, exactly, had happened to a kid named Dennis O’Brien. So I’ve decided to post the following two stories below.
Dennis was an interesting guyâ€”a military vet with a real split personality and some clear emotional issues. Very manic, very driven, very hard-core, very difficult to read. But also a kind, caring, passionate man who I enjoyed knowing and working alongside. When I learned of his death four years ago, I was crushed.
Anyhow, here ya go …
Was Death of Ex-Embed Linked to Iraq Experience?
By Joe Strupp
February 03, 2004
NEW YORKDennis O’Brien, a military reporter with The Virginian-Pilot and a former Iraq war embed who died over the weekend, apparently committed suicide, according to sources in and outside the paper — sparking speculation that his war experience might have contributed to his death.
The Virginian-Pilot reported Sunday that O’Brien, 35, had died Saturday, without revealing a cause.
Several editors at the paper would neither confirm nor deny that O’Brien took his own life. Norfolk police confirmed they had responded to a suicide on Saturday, but would not reveal the exact circumstances or the identity of the deceased. Several sources, however, said the reporter had taken his life, and suggested his time in Iraq may have played a role.
“I think it was a contributing factor,” said one colleague, who requested anonymity. “He saw some awful things while he was over there. I saw things get worse when he got back. He did tell people it was an awful experience.”
Coming just seven months after O’Brien returned from a nearly six-month reporting stint with a U.S. Marine unit in Iraq, his tragic death sparked concern among journalists about the potential deadly effects of war reporting.
“That is very distressing news,” Sig Christenson, a military reporter for the San Antonio (Texas) Express-News and vice president of Military Reporters & Editors, said upon hearing about O’Brien. “People should try to know why it happened and if it had anything to do with the war.”
Virginian-Pilot Managing Editor Denis Finley downplayed speculation that O’Brien’s Iraq service might have been a factor. “I don’t believe they are related,” he said. “I am sure there are others who believe that. It was part of his job. I didn’t see where it really affected him. It is something he wanted to do, and requested — it was one of his dream assignments.”
O’Brien, who joined the paper in July 2000, was one of the first embedded journalists in Iraq, joining Charlie Company of the U.S. Marines’ 2nd Light Armor Reconnaissance Batallion in January 2003, traveling with the group until June 2003, according to the paper. The story also mentioned that he had been involved in an ambush while in Iraq, but was not injured.
O’Brien wrote about his war experiences in a July 27, 2003, story in the Virginian-Pilot:
“I lost 30 pounds, and 4 inches off my waist. I also probably lost a little of my mind, but it’s coming back — I hope. I’m just glad that’s all I lost.
“I can’t tell you how many times the sailors and Marines told me I was crazy. They couldn’t believe I volunteered for this. Never mind that they also had volunteered — and for much longer tours of duty.“They were just doing their job, they said. And I was doing mine.”
Editors at the paper said they did not reveal the cause of death at the request of O’Brien’s family. He was married with a two-year-old daughter.Staff writer Steve Stone, who wrote Sunday’s story, seemed prepared for readers seeking further information on the cause of death. He placed a message on his regular voice mail explaining that the cause was withheld at the family’s request.
Kay Tucker Addis, Virginian-Pilot editor and vice president, said the paper does not normally cover suicides, but will on a case-by-case basis. “We don’t believe it was a public incident,” she said about O’Brien’s death. “We covered it consistent with the way we cover the death of a fellow colleague.”
Addis would not speculate on whether O’Brien’s death was related to his time in Iraq, adding that “It would be wrong for people to leap to assumptions. I don’t think it is appropriate for anyone to talk about what was his state of mind.”
Professional grief counselors were brought in to the newspaper for two sessions with staff members on Monday, according to Addis, who said the paper also held two special staff meetings to discuss the incident. The paper is creating a memorial book of O’Brien’s work and condolence cards and letters for his daughter, while also discussing formation of a trust fund for her.
In the paper’s story Sunday, Addis said: “Dennis was a talented and committed journalist who touched people around the globe with his dispatches from Iraq.” O’Brien wrote 67 stories during his coverage of the war “that gave a unique, up-close look at the war through the eyes of those on the front lines,” she added.
Copyright 2004 Editor & Publisher
* duckdaotsu considers all death and injury of any person a casualty of the war.
Mr. O’Brien’s photo will be placed on the “tragic losses” page of this website.
Ethicists Question Va. Paper’s Stance on Suicide
By Greg Mitchell
February 04, 2004
NEW YORK The death of a military reporter at The Virginian-Pilot last Saturday, and the newspaper’s decision to not reveal that the cause was suicide, raises anew the debate over how the media should handle such difficult cases. Three experts on ethical issues at the Poynter Institute and the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) question the newspaper’s decision to withhold information from the public, based on what they know about this case.
Complicating this tragic episode, but adding to the need for full disclosure, they say, is the fact that the reporter’s body was discovered by a colleague at the paper, in a public park in Norfolk, at midday.
“Many newspapers have a policy against revealing ‘ordinary’ suicides,” said Fred Brown, co-chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee. “I would not call this an ordinary suicide.”
Gary Hill, the SPJ Ethics Committee chair, said that withholding information “opens the paper to charges it showed favoritism to its own.”
Robert Steele, Scholar for Journalism Values at Poynter, added: “Our primary obligation in journalism is to reveal important information. We should only withhold when there is another overriding issue or value. Although I was not in that newsroom, I don’t see it in this case.”
On Sunday, the Virginian-Pilot(1), in a news story, reported that military reporter Dennis O’Brien, 35, who had a high profile at the paper and in the community last year as an embedded journalist in Iraq, had passed away on Saturday, but did not specify the cause.
E&P revealed yesterday that he had taken his life, but did not disclose full details. It quoted editors and others who differed on how much O’Brien’s experience in Iraq may have contributed to his downward spiral.
As of this morning, the paper still had not confirmed his cause of death. It previously explained that it was withholding information at the request of O’Brien’s family. He left behind a wife and two-year-old daughter.
The journalists from SPJ and Poynter, however, argued that while the family’s wishes are an important “input,” they should not be the sole criteria. Journalistic obligation, credibility and independence must also be weighed heavily.
One key factor, they agreed, is that local journalists are quasi-public figures, because of the nature of their work (they often cover public issues and officials) and where they work (their paper is usually a leading local institution). O’Brien, due to his well-publicized war coverage, certainly filled the bill.
The fact that another reporter discovered his body, after O’Brien reportedly arranged to meet him at the park, involved the newspaper even deeper in the tragedy. And the park setting for the suicide raised additional issues of the public’s right to know.
“Coverage of suicide has been a weak spot in the underbelly of journalism for a long time,” said Steele, in speaking at length, and with some passion, about this subject. “In many newsrooms, there are rules, written or cultural, that inhibit and sometimes prohibit sound ethical decisions and good news judgment on this matter. We are often bound to myths. Because of that, I believe we have terribly undercovered or miscovered the incidence of suicide in our society.”
Journalists face three “ethical pressure points,” he said, with any suicide: responsibility to the family; deterring copycats; and avoiding sensationalism. The Norfolk case, however, was complicated by the newspaper’s direct connection, “so fairness and consistency are added as issues,” he said. “Do we apply different standards when it’s one of our own? We know that the public is critical whenever we show any favoritism. If anything, we should hold ourselves to as high, or higher standards.”
Finally, the fact that the death took place in a park (rather than, say, at home) not only raises other public issues, it may mean there will be some sort of official probe, and the job of a newspaper is to follow investigations openly and completely.
The lesson for other papers, according to Steele, is that the “absence of specificity” in a death notice will inevitably raise significant questions. This fosters public perception that the paper is “hiding something.” Even if the paper’s motives are pure, and aimed at protecting the family, the public may question whether it has shown the same respect for the families of other crime or suicide victims.
“I don’t suggest we report every suicide,” Steele said, “but I would say we should disclose them unless there are extraordinary circumstances — reveal more rather than less, and sooner rather than later.”
Greg Mitchell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor of E&P.