U scolds paper for reporting on student who drank himself to death

The next generation of journalists will be a welcomed addition to a free and open society if a story on the Minnesota Daily website is any indication.

The news site, operated by journalism students at the University of Minnesota, told a story that needed be told — excessive drinking at parties run by fraternities and sororities, specifically the February death of Mitchell Hoenig, a member of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and a College of Biological Sciences Dean’s List honoree, who died two days later of alcohol poisoning. He had attended two parties organized by Gamma Phi Beta.

The Daily ran the story after obtaining Hoenig’s death certificate, which also showed cocaine use was a contributing factor.

This, of course, is a horrible tragedy for the young man’s family and the journalists, no doubt, do not research nor write the story with a sense of glee. Nobody wants their kid remembered for drinking himself to death.

So the need for this editor’s note at the top of the story is understandable. But the Daily made the right call. It takes a lot of courage to tell a story in the face of pressure from a grieving family and a university.

Editor’s note: The family of Mitchell Hoenig and some University of Minnesota officials objected to the publication of this story. It’s the duty of the Minnesota Daily to pursue the truth about important matters within the University community. We are committed to reporting this story with accuracy and fairness.

The local Phi Gamma Delta Gamma Phi Beta leaders didn’t want to talk, preferring to let the national office take the lead. It issued a statement that provided little insight into what happened other than to say the organization’s policies were followed. The organization prohibits underage drinking.

And yet somehow Hoenig ended up dead.

The Daily says the University of Minnesota wanted the editors to spike the story.

“Mitchell was a valued member of our community and we join his family in continuing to mourn his loss. It is disappointing that the Minnesota Daily is choosing to publish a story against the wishes of the Hoenig family, who we continue to support and work with as they grieve,” Maggie Towle, the University interim vice provost for student affairs and dean of students, said in an emailed statement through a University spokesperson.

“Per our standard practice, the University assisted with an inquiry from Gamma Phi Beta International Headquarters. It is common for the Headquarters to take the lead in assessing a situation while the University reserves the right for additional attention if needed. In this case, we have received no information to warrant further exploration at this time,” the statement says.

When asked for further details about the inquiry, University spokesperson Steve Henneberry said in an email that the school “assisted with clarifying institutional policies and procedures regarding student group conduct and options for responding to allegations of misconduct [if] they occurred.”

Additionally, when asked if the University would pursue any policy violations, Henneberry referred the Minnesota Daily to Towle’s statement.

In other words: “no.”

The Daily did nothing to diminish Hoenig in its reporting, particularly noting that he was an organ donor.

… and at the end of the memorial, his sister read out loud who received his organs. A 67-year-old man received his heart, a 66-year-old man received his lungs, a 63-year-old man received his liver, a 44-year-old man received his pancreas and one of his kidneys and an 11-year-old girl received his other kidney.

Unclear — and certainly troubling — is whether anyone other than the student journalists are getting to the bottom of how he ended up dead and why so many people worked so hard to prevent that question from being answered.

What good can come from the darkness?

(h/t: Paul Tosto)