Back to the Future - Questions for the News Media from the Past

By Ghiglione, Loren | Law and Contemporary Problems, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview
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Back to the Future - Questions for the News Media from the Past

Ghiglione, Loren, Law and Contemporary Problems


The alleged rape by three members of the Duke University lacrosse team led to extensive coverage by media voices as different as CNN Headline News's Nancy Grace (billed as "the feisty former prosecutor") and the more sedate "Gray Lady," The New York Times. Critics of the coverage often charge that most of the media, however different, fell victim to similar journalistic sins.

First, the media ignored the basic principles of Journalism 101: Report accurately and fairly; admit what you do not know; never assume; treat sources, however official, with skepticism; and verify, verify, verify.

Second, the media abandoned prudence for a presumption of guilt. At best, it feigned neutrality and skepticism. Reporters regurgitated the rush-to-judgment rants by the office of District Attorney Michael Nifong and the Durham Police Department. So early press accounts incorrectly reported from official sources: (a) "really, really strong evidence" (1) of rape when no evidence existed; (b) the refusal of all forty-six white lacrosse players to cooperate with police (no player refused); and (c) the players' denial of "participation or knowing anything" (2) (the players interviewed had described in detail what had taken place).

Third, the media exhibited stereotypes about lacrosse players. In Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case, Stuart Taylor Jr. and KC Johnson wrote that even journalists who usually shunned gender and racial stereotypes portrayed lacrosse players as almost exclusively white, rich, conceited, and thuggish--"a bad bunch, and probably racists to boot." (3)

Fourth, the media fit the "Duke lacrosse rape" storyline into a centuries-old narrative pattern of innocent, African American, female victims--Sally Hemmings-era slaves and the antebellum South's black women. (4) Early accounts of the case portrayed the accuser as "a poor African-American mother struggling to work her way through college." (5) The Raleigh News & Observer never once used the word "alleged" in describing the "sexual violence" against the virtuous victim, the exotic dancer with two children and a "full class load at N.C. Central University." (6)

Fifth, the media presumed a related storyline about the predominantly white, criminal-justice system--that, especially in the South, the system stood for racial injustice and comforted the already comfortable, ruling whites--here, the Duke lacrosse players. Memories persisted of the trials of the Scottsboro Boys--black teens accused of raping two Alabama white women in 1931--and the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black, for whistling at a Mississippi white woman.

The false prosecution of the three lacrosse players for rape reminded blogger William L. Anderson and others of the two-decade-old case of African American Tawana Brawley. (Anderson called the Duke case Tawana Brawley II. (7)) Brawley, then fifteen, had accused three white men--including a police officer--of repeatedly raping her. Brawley had been missing from her home in Wappingers Falls, New York, for four days. She was found lying in a garbage bag, her clothing ripped and burned, her body covered with feces and racial epithets written on her in a black, charcoal-like substance. (8) The story, it was later revealed, was a hoax.

Brawley's team of lawyers and advisers starred the Reverend Al Sharpton and the attorney Alton Maddox. In reviewing media coverage of the team's statements, a book by The New York Times reporters assigned to the case faulted the media for building into a national story the baseless charges from a Maddox-Sharpton press conference. (9) Maddox said Brawley had been "lured into an automobile" and sexually assaulted. (10) Sharpton called the attack "the most shameful act of racism of our times." (11) The Times reporters criticized both the "skillful exploitation of television and the press" and the news media's failure to challenge the inflammatory Sharpton and Maddox.

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Back to the Future - Questions for the News Media from the Past


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