Monday, March 14, 2016

Duke Lacrosse and the Lessons Journalism and the Media Haven't Learned

Watching ESPN's latest 30 for 30 film on Duke lacrosse was a chastening experience. I was but 12 and preparing for my Bar Mitzvah when this story was national news and dominating the 24/7 news cycle. The case was a confluence of every "war" in modern American society; white vs. black, rich vs. poor, men vs. women, etc., which meant it was a natural story to project many different societal ills on. While the film did a brilliant job exposing the flaws in the American Justice System, it touched on something more apt for this space... the ills of modern journalism.

Even at that time back 10 years ago, the 24 hour news cycle dominated the world. Ratings + the need to fill air time meant that a story like this became a natural target for eager and overzealous journalists to impress this new need for content on. The need for content does not supersede the need for accuracy and proper coverage however, and this story is a prime of example of how not to cover a crime story. Local and national news made the same mistakes and fed off of the circumstances of the case rather than the case itself. And in the world of social media and the even more prevalent need for clicks/ratings, imagining the coverage of a similar story in 2016 is almost sickening.

In the court of law, all who are charged are innocent until proven guilty. While that standard is certainly malleable, it is one that has held up ever since the foundation of the country. What is different, and fundamentally so, is that in the court of public opinion, guilt is always presumed. The controllers of the court of public opinion are those presenting the story to the public, and that is the media. "The media doesn't tell us what to think, it tells us what to think about". In many ways that statement is true, but increasingly, the media is telling us both what to think about and what to think about what to think about. In the Duke case, what was being presented to the media painted a picture of a heinous crime committed by lacrosse players against a black female escort. What actually happened was a terrible confluence of circumstances that led to an overzealous public official using a case for his own personal gain. Many of the modern ills in society were projected onto the case that had no reason to even be in the same discussion, and it was largely because of what the media presented to the public as truth, and none of that "truth" was anywhere near it.

Thinking about 2016 and the rapidly changing media landscape means cases like this don't have the time to develop as legal cases before the media jumps in and projects itself onto the case. While the media should not do the job the justice system has to do, it does provide a valuable public service and checking the government for its actions and calling it out when it steps beyond its bounds. Good journalists develop sources and find ways to collect information the public cannot easily obtain, and not much of that was done with Duke lacrosse. There were alarm bells all over this case and the way it was handled, but some in the media had already presumed the outcome but needed the path to it, just like Mike Nifong. While it is incredibly evident that a system that rewards guilty verdicts instead of the truth was abused here, the media needs to call it out, not enhance its use. A DA that was lagging in the polls and was eager to climb them took on a case that sparked conflict among a racial divide in a city that was colored by it doesn't sound alarm bells to anyone? In many ways, the media makes these publicized court cases worse, because the flaws in the system are only exposed more and in some ways enhanced.

One of the parents of the players charged in the case said the media couldn't be trusted, and in many ways he's not wrong. There is a common refrain in the public space now that "journalism is dying". In fact it's the exact opposite; quality journalism is more important than ever. So many people claim to report on the news and clutter the space with needless opinion there to garner hits and nothing else instead of the importance being put on quality, in-depth, targeted reporting that only the best journalists can do. Plenty of that is related to the financial state of the industry, but good journalism will always be appreciated by the public, and the media's job is still to check the government in its overreach of power. The Washington Post's stories on the NSA with Edward Snowden fundamentally changed modern human society, and that was in 2013. There is a reason why journalism is the only profession mentioned in the Constitution.

So 10 years on, what can the media learn from the embarrassment of the Duke lacrosse case? It can learn that what is put out in public is done for a reason, and that reason isn't necessarily for the betterment of the public. Doing background on everyone involved in the case is important, but there needs to be a better standard for what and what isn't newsworthy. When worthy questions need to be asked of procedural issues in a case, journalists must ask it. We cannot do the DA or defense's job for them, but we have the ability to find out information that the public simply cannot (for instance: we can gather police records as they are public information. The process might be slanted but we have the patience to do so). Each case is fundamentally different from ones that came before it, even with precedent in the courtroom. The core tenets of the film was not on rape culture or class issues, though they certainly played a role. The film focused on what was a fundamental corruption of justice, which has made it harder for the public to believe rape victims when they report what happened to them in the future. The fact that the privileged white guys were just as much of a victim as Crystal Mangum makes the entire situation even murkier and worse.

No doubt it will be tricky to cover cases better in the future because of the demands on the media as of now. In sports of late, the issue of sexual assault and rape have become hot button issues, and the media's coverage of the cases that have become public have been rather shallow. And because of the public's chastening experience with the Duke lacrosse case, it makes every subsequent sexual assault/rape case even trickier to cover because the public inherently is wary to believe the women because they've seen instances in which they were lied to; not by the women, but by those who were supposed to protect them. Everyone must do better, and watching Fantastic Lies, it's pretty clear on where journalists need to improve if we are to provide a better service to the public for what our fundamental job is: finding out the truth. Showing sympathy for those who are sexually assaulted and projecting guilt in the court of public opinion are two fundamentally different things that should stay separate.

Journalists occupy such an important public space and even with the issues facing the profession and the industry, we must all work harder to do our jobs as good as we can, which means we can cover complex cases like the Duke lacrosse case with the care, precision and thoroughness they deserve. It is easy to take a case and apply lenses to it that do not belong, and we have to do better to prevent that from happening. Journalists have an obligation to report all sides of a story, even in tetchy cases like these. We have to work even harder to do that.

The film and the case touched a sensitive nerve in society because of all the factors at play. But one that needs to be touched on is that journalists have to do better, much better, especially now, because if we don't, even more fundamental societal ills can fester unchecked.

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