Friday July 28, 2017

Day 6 Encore: The 'Drunk Teacher' saga is a cautionary tale for the social media age

Tacoma kindergarten teacher Klara Bowman in a school photo. Bowman was fired from her job in March 2016 after being found intoxicated on the job. Bowman took her own life in June 2016.

Tacoma kindergarten teacher Klara Bowman in a school photo. Bowman was fired from her job in March 2016 after being found intoxicated on the job. Bowman took her own life in June 2016.

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Until last fall, if you'd googled the name "Klara Bowman," the search would have come back with a series of stories about a drunk teacher who was fired from her job in Tacoma, Washington.

That was before a columnist with The News Tribune in Tacoma decided to uncover Klara Bowman's full story.

A search of her name today will yield stories about a woman who took her own life, about her struggle with addiction, and about the need for frank talk about alcoholism.

Columnist Matt Driscoll first raised concerns about the coverage and reaction to Bowman's story back in March 2016. Bowman was fired from her job after being found intoxicated while in the classroom. It was the second time she had been caught drinking at work.

"We lost the humanity of Klara Bowman in these sensational stories."

Problematic coverage

Driscoll acknowledges that Bowman made some bad decisions, but as he tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, he took exception to the way her story was covered by the media.

"You understand why it's news," he says, "but the tone of the coverage — very sensational in the way it was covered, focusing on all these sordid details about just how drunk she was, how many bottles there were in the classroom - you know, it was really apparent what the motivation in those stories were, and it wasn't necessarily just to get the news out. It was about getting clicks and viewers."

Driscoll thinks the coverage set the tone for the online comments in response to Bowman's story.

"It got really nasty, really quickly. And it just felt incredibly unfair," says Driscoll.

News headlines described Bowman as the "drunken teacher," and on Twitter the #drunkteacher hashtag took off.

"We lost of the humanity of Klara Bowman in these sensational stories."

Tweets about Klara Bowman

After Tacoma teacher Klara Bowman was fired in March 2016 for drinking on the job, social media lit up with comments about her, many of which made jokes about her situation. (Twitter)

    

                  

Suicide

After being the butt of jokes in international news headlines in March 2016, there was no coverage of Bowman's story when she took her own life in June, just three months after she was fired from her job.

Because Driscoll had written compassionately about Bowman at the time of her firing, her friends and colleagues called Driscoll to let him know of her suicide.

"It was like a punch in the gut," he says.

And while he was worried about the toll the media and online reaction would have on Bowman, he never expected that she would take her own life.

"Finding out that that had happened, it just like, oh my gosh, this is the worst possible outcome. It was just crushing and it haunted me and it stuck with me for months," says Driscoll.

It is impossible to know why Bowman took her own life, and no direct link can conclusively be drawn between her death and her public shaming, but Driscoll says Bowman was definitely affected by the stories and comments about her.

"What I do know is that she was in the process of changing her name because of just how easy it was to google 'Klara Bowman,' and then [find] page after page after page of 'drunk Tacoma teacher' stories that are associated with that name now."

After being fired, Bowman had enrolled in a detox program and was trying to put her life back together.

"The weight of those stories and the Internet shaming was heavy on her," says Driscoll.

                      

Telling the full story

After Bowman's death, Driscoll decided to reach out to her parents and try to learn more about her, and the possible reasons behind her alcohol addiction. He was the only reporter to contact her family.

"Once you get into it, it really becomes a heartbreaking story," Driscoll says sombrely.

He explains that when Bowman was 14 years old, her younger sister died of leukemia, something from which Bowman never recovered. She started drinking a year later, and also struggled with depression, anxiety and an eating disorder.

"Her sister died in January, and around the anniversary of her death, for the rest of her life, that was just a difficult anniversary with her and she was known to struggle even more so at [that] time of year."

The two times that Bowman was caught drinking on the job were in February.

While visiting her parents' home, Driscoll noted that Bowman's paintings covered their walls. On her blog, Bowman said she wished she could earn a living from painting: "When I paint, I lose all sense of time and worry and am all consumed by lines and colors. When I paint, I am content."

Fire tree

"Fire Tree," a painting by Tacoma schoolteacher Klara Bowman, posted to her blog in December 2014. (Courtesy Klara Bowman's blog)

Driscoll notes that his newspaper — like other media outlets — has a policy of not covering the suicides of private individuals. There are various reasons for this, including not wanting to inspire copycats and respecting the privacy of the individual and their family.

So after having her story widely told when she was fired, no one told the story of her death. Until October.

"To me, that was part of the story that seemed incredibly unfair. For everyone to not hesitate to cover this lowest moment of her professional career, and really run wild with the story. And then when that story plays out and the media coverage has a role in that, to not cover [her death] seemed really unfair."

Driscoll says the reaction to his story about Bowman's life has been overwhelming, and he hopes for a more positive reaction to similar stories that will inevitably arise in the future.

"Hopefully, we'll see the human side of these headlines as opposed to just this person that is just a headline."


To hear the full interview with Matt Driscoll, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.