Monday, June 12, 2006

Duke lacrosse: Look at the first newspaper report

Melanie Sill, the Raleigh News & Observer’s executive editor for news, has done a lot of cluck-clucking about how The N&O “broke the story” we’ve all come to call the Duke lacrosse case. And she's right about that.

Now let’s take a look at how, on Mar 24, the N&O broke the story under the headlines:

DNA tests ordered for Duke athletes
Lacrosse team reports to lab in rape inquiry
The N&O began:
Durham police had 46 members of the Duke University lacrosse team DNA-tested Thursday in the suspected gang-rape of a woman at an off-campus party last week.

Police think at least three of the men could be responsible for the sexual assault, beating, robbery and near-strangulation of one of two women who had an appointment to dance at the party March 13, according to a search warrant.
As the story moves along, you notice statements like:
A search warrant returned Thursday details the attack the victim described to police.
But the search warrant didn’t detail “the attack the victim described.”

The search warrant only contained details the accuser gave police about an alleged attack.

Why didn't the N&O tell readers that? And “victim?” Where did that come from, you ask?

The N&O explained:
It is The News & Observer's policy not to identify victims of reported sex crimes.
The N&O didn’t say how it knows someone reporting a sex crime is a victim; or whether it just goes ahead and grants victim status and anonymity to anyone reporting what the person says was a sex crime.

But regardless of how The N&O decides such things, the effect of its granting victim status to the accuser was to frame the Duke lacrosse players as the victimizers.

The N&O did that before its readers were even halfway through the very first story they’d read on the Duke lacrosse case.

The N&O went on to say such things as:
” The victim was pulled into a bathroom, and three men held her down, sexually assaulting and sodomizing her, the warrant says. She was kicked, hit, strangled and beaten, she told police.”


“They also looked for artificial fingernails painted with red polish, apparently lost in the victim's struggle.
The N&O worked very hard to get “victim” fixed in readers’ minds.

All told the N&O referred in its story to the accuser as “the victim” or used the possessive “victim’s” a total of 7 times.

Why did The N&O work so hard to present the accuser as a victim? What did the N&O know that justified doing that?

The N&O’s public editor, Ted Vaden,told me in a phone conversation he wouldn't answer that question because: “Frankly, John, there isn’t time to answer every question someone asks, and I’m not going to answer that one.”

If Vaden had answered my question I'd have gone on and asked him whether anyone at the N&O or the McClatchy Company, its owner, ever considered how casting the accuser as “the victim” was framing the Duke lacrosse players?

Here's something else we should all be asking: Why didn’t the N&O tell its readers that the three lacrosse players who rented the house where the accuser said she was gang-raped voluntarily gave statements to the police without counsels present; voluntarily went to Duke Medical Center and submitted to “rape kit” tests; and offered to take lie detector tests?

That all happened days before the N&O broke the story.

It belonged in the story, didn't it?

When you look at the N&O’s “we broke it” story, it’s not hard to understand why the story played out for months the way it did; and why so many decent people were fooled.

But that doesn’t explain why the N&O ran the kind of story it did.

Tomorrow I’ll post on the N&O’s second Duke lacrosse story. It ran the following day, Mar. 25, on the front page under five-column wide headlines:

A woman hired to dance for the Duke lacrosse team describes a night of racial slurs, growing fear and, finally, sexual violence.
It was the N&O's Mar. 25 story, which built on the inflamatory bias set in the Mar. 24 story, that ignited what became the Duke lacrosse witch hunt.

The hysteria and threats of violence that followed the N&O's stories reached the point where responsible community leaders felt compelled to take full page newspaper ads calling on the public to remain calm and let justice take its course.

The Raleigh News & Observer was one of the papers which carried the ad.

The N&O describes itself as "Fair and Accurate."
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Anonymous said...

Well, I like to describe myself as trim and athletic.