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Media faulted in Duke case

Some news outlets leapt to conclusions

By Nick Madigan

Sun reporter

April 12, 2007

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After a year of salacious stories and unfettered speculation, the legal case against the Duke University lacrosse players is over - but the news media might not be off the hook.

Ever since it emerged in March last year that a stripper had accused three Duke students of raping her at a party, some reporters and columnists have come under attack for making points that seemed at odds with the few facts that were known.

The Duke story had all the elements of a dramatic tale - a black woman alleging that she had been attacked by a handful of supposedly drunk, privileged white athletes at a top private college in a North Carolina town with a long history of racial tensions. The news media had a field day.

But some news outlets were roundly condemned for what critics said was a credulous acceptance of the district attorney's case against the three students, David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann. It was, in the view of many, a rush to judgment.

Other commentators lamented a tendency of some reporters to view the story only from the perspective of the defendants. Such articles tended to paint the accuser as unhinged and unreliable - a portrait that gained credence as the case unraveled.

"There was an initial, preconceived notion about what the overall narrative of the story was about," said Kelly McBride, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank. "It was: 'Elite, spoiled white boys degrade and humiliate poor, black woman.' And then, over the next couple of months, you saw the pendulum swing in the complete opposite direction. It became: 'Loose, unstable black woman accuses nice white boys of rape.' Both of those narratives were excessive, and the reporting behind them could not substantiate the conclusions."

McBride, who spoke yesterday from New York, where she was leading a workshop on how the news media cover sexual assaults, said there is an inherent problem in "messy, complicated, real-life stories: They rarely have a simple narrative arc."

In the rush to cover such stories, often with insufficient or poorly sourced information, reporters sometimes make assumptions that turn out to be wrong, critics say. In the Duke case, it seems to have happened all too often.

"A lot of the commentary has been uninformed and underinformed," said Philip Wood, a marketing executive in Raleigh who last summer started a blog, LieStoppers (liestoppers.blogspot.com), to try to poke holes in the case being developed by Durham District Attorney Michael B. Nifong, who later removed himself from the case and is being investigated for prosecutorial misconduct.

"The lack of accurate information has highlighted the condemnation of the accused players," Wood said yesterday. In particular, The New York Times "seemed to use their stories as editorials."

After the Times ran a front-page article about the case Aug. 25, Wood and fellow writers on the LieStoppers blog "pulled an all-nighter," he said, to refute some of its points.

The Times "corrected a few facts, but nothing significant," Wood said. He said the paper's coverage improved once David Barstow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, began covering the case late last year.

Stuart Taylor Jr., a former Times reporter who is preparing a book about the Duke case, also was critical of the Aug. 25 article.

"Imagine you are the world's most powerful newspaper and you have invested your credibility in yet another story line that is falling apart," Taylor wrote in a Slate.com critique Aug. 29. "If you're The New York Times and the story is the alleged gang rape of a black woman by three white Duke lacrosse players - a claim shown by mounting evidence to be almost certainly fraudulent - you tone down your rhetoric while doing your utmost to prop up a case that's been almost wholly driven by prosecutorial and police misconduct."

Byron Calame, the Times' public editor, declined to comment yesterday, saying he had yet to decide whether to write about the subject again. He referred a reporter to an April 23, 2006, column he wrote about the paper's early coverage of the Duke case. At that point, the Times had published more than 20 articles about the matter.

"The soundness of the news judgment reflected in the paper's performance so far deserves a decent grade," Calame wrote. "The coverage has been basically fair, I think, with a few miscues mainly related to the placement and the space given articles."

Calame, whose two-year stint at the Times ends May 8, quoted the paper's sports editor, Tom Jolly, as saying that he was "very comfortable with our coverage."

Another newspaper that came under fire was The News & Observer, in Raleigh, N.C. Its public editor, Ted Vaden, said by phone yesterday that the story "has been a difficult challenge."

"The early coverage led to sympathy for the accuser and criticism for the players, and it really stirred an uproar," he said. Later, "we changed the narrative from focusing on the accuser as a hapless victim to focusing on an out-of-control prosecutor, with the players perhaps as victims."

Wood reserved particular opprobrium for The Herald-Sun in Durham, whose articles, he said, were often "thinly veiled" in their support for Nifong. "It was consistent in nearly every piece," the LieStoppers blogger said. "They've attempted to downplay the charges against Nifong."

Editor Robert Ashley said that while the paper's editorial page has favored letting "the judicial process play out" in Nifong's case, the news department has covered "every assertion of wrongdoing" leveled at the district attorney.

"I'm baffled that we would be accused of downplaying them," said Ashley, whose paper has had up to nine reporters assigned to the Duke story at any given time. "They're serious allegations, and we've treated them as such."

nick.madigan@baltsun.com