Local Paper Defends Coverage Of Crumbling ‘Duke Lacrosse’ Case

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By: Joe Strupp

As rape allegations against three Duke University lacrosse players appear to be crumbing, with disclosures that exculpatory evidence had been wrongly withheld and the state Attorney General taking over the shaky prosecution, the editor of the local daily paper contends his reporters have covered the story fairly from the beginning.

Although a variety of recent developments, including the alleged victim’s continued changing story, have prompted some to claim early media coverage unfairly portrayed the suspects in a negative light, Editor Bob Ashley of the Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C., where Duke is located, defended his paper’s coverage of the case.

“I think, locally, we have tried to report the facts as they’ve been produced, the facts as they have been publicly available,” Ashley said. “And when the defense attorneys have produced evidence available to their clients, we have reported that.”

When asked about the national media’s reporting, Ashley said it has “run the gamut from an almost caricature-like reporting of Durham to some very serious journalism.” He criticized several of the larger news organizations’ portrayals of the relationship between Duke and the city, which he says is not as contentious as they made it seem. “I think it has been mischaracterized as being much more at odds than is true,” he says. “Clearly, there were tensions early in the case, but those were exaggerated, at least in some of the earlier reporting.”

Ashley admits that he would have liked to have broken some of the recent information, such as the revelations about DNA evidence, earlier. But he says his reporters followed the case as closely as possible and reported with a presumption of innocence.

“Are there bits here and there, given hindsight, we would have liked to have reported sooner? Yes,” he added. “I wished we had sources and had ferreted them out, but it wasn’t there.” Ashley cited the recent revelations that DNA from unidentified men other than the lacrosse players had been found on the alleged victim. “Clearly, I wish we could have been ahead of the public introduction of evidence,” he said. “But we have reported the facts as they have become known and it has been an unfolding story we could only report as it unfolds.”

Ashley says all of his 10 metro reporters have worked on the story at one time or another since the arrests last spring, adding “we even drafted a copy editor to do some reporting.”

He admits that the paper is in an unusual situation, given that it has to maintain its relationships in the city and continue to report after larger media outlets leave. But he contends that has given the paper a better insight to the local community. “We’ve tried to keep some sense of perspective,” he told E&P. “When all of this is over, the national media will de-camp and go on to the next one. We have kept that in mind, the issues that have been raised by many.”

The paper’s careful stance is reflected in recent editorials. Although the editorial page reports to him, Ashley says he has not been involved in writing editorials on the case. One piece published on Sunday offered a mixed comment on the decision by embattled District Attorney Mike Nifong to step down from the case and turn it over to the Attorney General.

Although it supported the decision, it made it appear as if it was a courageous move by Nifong rather than a forced removal prompted by his own poor actions. “Nifong’s request to recuse himself was no admission of wrongdoing,” the editorial stated. “On the contrary, his attorney, David Freedman, retained by Nifong to defend him against the ethics charges, said Nifong was disappointed he wouldn’t be taking it to trial.”

The editorial also stopped short of openly criticizing Nifong, or pointing out that recent revelations indicate the lacrosse player’s guilt is much less-apparent than it was months ago. Instead, the paper urges readers to remember that the suspects could still face jail. “…the defendants aren’t out of the woods yet. The case may seem shaky, but there are still serious allegations on the books, with an accuser who apparently still wants to pursue them,” the editorial stated. “A new prosecutor is no guarantee it won’t go to trial.”

An earlier editorial last week appeared to promote Durham as a positive business community, even in the face of the Duke scandal. Citing concerns by some that the alleged rape case would hurt the city’s image, the paper offered reasons why it should not. “To follow the national media or read some of the letters to the editor on this page, one might get the idea that the only significant thing happening at Duke or in Durham is the infamous lacrosse case. But that would be wrong,” the editorial stated, noting that investment in the city is growing, as is enrollment at the university. “Just as the economy is a credit to the region, the application numbers are a credit to Duke’s resilience and hard-won reputation for academic excellence. It’s very good news that those who know Duke understand that the institution cannot be defined by a single unfortunate incident.”

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