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American Journalism Review gets Duke case all wrong. Journalists deserve 100% of the blame, no lessons were learned, it will definitely happen again. 7/26/07

Posted by Steve Boriss in Bias, Duke.
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The American Journalism Review (AJR) has a story on the Duke rape case that claims that District Attorney Nifong’s “failing in this case cannot be overstated, nor can it be equated to that of…journalists…however odious some of their reporting [might have been].” It goes on to limit the harm done by the press, or missed opportunity to do good, to not being as skeptical as it should have been, and suggests that greater vigilance on their part can curb some of the damage in similar incidents in the future.

Sounds reasonable, but the AJR could not be more wrong. Think about this — who really destroyed the lives of the Duke lacrosse players, cost their parents millions of dollars, and inflamed racial and economic tensions? Every day there must be hundreds of overzealous District Attorneys, lawyers, judges, and other quotable news sources who make statements just as irresponsible, immoral, and wrong as the previously unknown Nifong. Every day there must be thousands of college students who engage in behavior just as wild and lewd as the Duke lacrosse team. Why don’t each of these scenarios destroy lives, cost innocents millions, and injure the social fabric?

The truth is that the Duke case only became a problem because someone turned an inflammatory, cock-and-bull story into a news item. This could not have been Nifong who, unlike the President of the U.S., does not have the power to grant an item the stature of news. In fact, the responsible, irresponsible party could only have been the journalists who decided that among the infinite number of news stories and angles they could have selected, the accusations of a previously unknown DA in the midst of a race for reelection was one of the nation’s top stories. And contrary to the views of the AJR, once that mistake was made, no amount of vigilant reporting could have undone the damage – the Duke students and their families were from that moment on destined to lose their reputations and fortunes.

On what basis did these journalists make the decision that this story had the stature of news? Former NY Times public editor Daniel Okrent got it almost completely right when he said, “It conformed too well to many preconceived notions of too many in the press: white over black, rich over poor, athletes over non-athletes, men over women, educated over non-educated.” All he got wrong was the precision of his words. “Preconceived notions” in this case is a euphemism for holding negative stereotypes of groups of people, which also might be called “prejudice,” “bigotry,” or “bias.” If the AJR is serious about avoiding a repeat of this ugly incident, that’s the journalism problem they should be addressing. But, since they and no one else is, it certainly will happen again.

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