Unsubstantiated Opinions

ImageRecently, there was an article published on CNN.com about an Alaskan man that had been missing for over a year. The man’s body was recently found and a lot of speculation has been discussed on just how he died. It seems that before he disappeared, Samuel McAlpine had divorced his wife and moved out of the house they had shared. Since they were unable to sell their old home, McAlpine’s ex-wife decided to rent it out instead. Some tenants moved into the house for a year, and after they moved out, the wife went in to clean the house up for some new prospective tenants when she uncovered her ex-husband’s body in a small storage space under some stairs.

In reviewing the comments on the article, a lot of readers are sharing their thoughts on how McAlpine might have ended up in the small storage space. The article states that drugs and alcohol may have been involved with McAlpine’s death, and some readers agreed with that suspicion. “If drugs and alcohol were involved, then the question is was the death accidental or suicide. Nowhere in the article did it say he was ‘stuffed’ under the stairs. That is supposition on your part. It just said he was found under the stairs…which, if drugs and/or alcohol factored into his death, wouldn’t be a shock, given the general lack of forethought by substance abusers when it comes their personal safety. The article implies that drug paraphernalia and alcohol bottles were found with the body, or that he had a known history of substance abuse. Nothing in the story, as written, implies foul play.”

There were also some readers who believed that foul play, not drugs, were the cause of death and that the police were being to lax in not investigating all options. One comment stated, “And the body was found stuffed into a storage space underneath the stairs, but the police do not suspect foul play? What kind of cops are these? Do they think people routinely get drunk/high, crawl into storage spaces, and die?”  Another poster shared, “Nothing weird about it at all. There have been countless times that I’ve gotten loaded and thought, ‘Man, I don’t feel so good. I better get in the crawl space under my stairs.’ As a matter of fact, come to think of it, the last two apartments I rented had a full grown man decomposing under the steps and I never smelled a thing. Happens every day.”

A lot of the comments argued back and forth over whether the police were doing a good job in their investigation, whether the police had shared all of the information they knew, whether the article was holding back information, and whether foul play or drugs could have been a factor in McAlpine’s death. As evidenced above, most of the reader statements are examples of undue confidence and unsubstantiated opinion. Arnett, Fritz, and Bell (2009) tell us that “the public arena lives and prospers when public space for conversation, not one’s own opinion, is the ultimate good” and that “a vibrant public arena is to avoid communicative action based on ideological certainty that seeks no new knowledge, just the opportunity to tell” (p.103). This is demonstrated by the fact that that a few of the readers believe that they know better than the police stating that by not saying foul play is suspected, the police are not doing their jobs correctly. When other readers try to bring up alternate points of view about why the police do not suspect foul play (Perhaps the police are holding back on that statement for a reason? Perhaps they do not want to give a “head’s up” to a suspect? Or, perhaps they know more information (evidence) than is shared in the article and so they are confident that there was no foul play?) those readers who disparage the police, refuse to give them ground and simply restate their position.

This brings me what is missing from the article; the voice of the police. There were a few vague references about police statements, but no solid facts were ever shared in the article itself, leaving the story open to such discussions as those found in the comments. One poster even shared that, “There aren’t enough facts in the CNN story to suggest foul play should be suspected. Maybe it was an abundantly clear suicide or accidental death. Police in most jurisdictions seldom release all of their findings to the media in sudden death situations.”

Perhaps having a moderator would help to clear up the constant back and forth “finger-pointing” but I do not honestly know if it would make that much of a difference. People, with or without all of the facts, will continue to speculate on these types of stories because everyone maintains a different perception and protects and promotes various goods. For some people, because the article does not detail all of the steps the police have taken or all of the evidence they have recovered, it appears as if the police are not doing their jobs properly and are missing how McAlpine could have died from foul play. For other readers, they know the article does not tell the whole story and so they can only wait for more information to be released before they make a decision on how they feel about the story. And finally, other readers believe that drug or alcohol abuse could very well be the “simple” explanation behind McAlpine’s death. The truth is, while we may never truly know, we can always think we do.


Arnett, R., Harden Fritz, J., & Bell, L. (2009). Communication ethics literacy: Dialogue and difference. Los Angeles, California: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Conlon, K. (2014, April 2). Missing Alaska man found dead in his home after a year. CNN. Retrieved April 3, 2014, from http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/02/justice/alaska-missing-man/index.html?hpt=ju_c2




3 thoughts on “Unsubstantiated Opinions

  1. Does the missing police “voice” suggest that journalist standards may be different between stories written for online content and others? What role does race play in the comments? Were the posts curated so that vague inferences are what’s left of the racial assumptions? What insights can examining this material according to communication ethics provide beyond the facts that you share? What questions swim beneath the surface?

  2. I think that the standards for online journalism are different than those for printed materials. I read a lot of online articles that are similar to this current article where the story is vague and a lot of information seems to be missing. Perhaps they journalist could not collect all of the information because no one would return their calls/emails, perhaps in the rush to get the information out to the public the facts get left behind.

    Looking at this article, and the comments, from a communication ethics perspective shows me that the lines between public forums and private conversations have become blurred. As with most social media and online forums, comments and conversations that might be more suitable for a private forum (i.e., personal drug use) have become standpoints people utilize in public forums in which to argue their position on an issue. It turns public forums, which should be used for learning, into soapboxes where people sermonize their personal vendettas.

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