Falling Short on Fairness

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, April 29, 2007

Fairness is a bedrock principle of good journalism. Two stories this past week and past stories about rape charges against three Duke University lacrosse players are worth exploring for that reason.

The Duke story was a tangle of issues -- racism, sexism and economic privilege. Many African Americans, especially women, could identify with the woman, who said she was raped by well-off white college athletes at a March 2006 party; she had been hired to perform as a stripper. The three athletes who were declared innocent of rape charges, as well as their families, supporters and Duke alumni, were outraged that charges had been filed. They cited an absence of DNA evidence, inconsistencies in the woman's story and an earlier rape allegation she made that wasn't pursued.

Many of the stories ran in Sports and were straightforward, leaving open the question of guilt. But material supportive of the players was sometimes too far down in stories. A May 24 Style story by Lynne Duke centered on black women's reaction to the charges. The headline that editors wrote -- "The Duke Case's Cruel Truth" -- went too far.

Overall, coverage of the Duke case suffered from a common journalistic malady: dependence on "the authorities"; in this case, prosecutor Michael B. Nifong, who now faces ethics charges. Journalists almost always depend first on the official explanation, whether of police, prosecutors, government spokesmen, the military or "experts." That is journalism's Achilles heel, whether it involves intelligence on Iraqi weapons or a rape charge in Durham.

The best of The Post's coverage was a skeptical column on June 28 by editorial writer Ruth Marcus and two terrific stories by National reporter Anne Hull on May 7 and June 10. The first of Hull's articles was set on the historically black campus where the woman went to school and delved into her life; the second told of the distress of the players' families and supporters. Both showed the anguish of real people.

Though they were declared innocent of rape, the lacrosse players' season was ruined, their coach was fired and their legal problems took a year out of their lives. In hiring strippers for their midnight drinking party, they were not innocent of bad judgment.

Last Monday, a front-page story by John Solomon and Alec MacGillis implied that Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards couldn't have consulted for a hedge fund, Fortress Investment Group, or taken contributions from its employees without putting his liberal principles at risk.

Like all hedge funds, Fortress is for wealthy insiders, and Edwards is a rich trial lawyer. The facts are eminently worth reporting, but the tone of the story implied that consulting for a hedge fund, whose offshore tax havens he has decried, is incompatible with caring about the less fortunate.

Deeper in the story, we learned that all the major candidates have taken contributions from hedge funds; that hedge fund money and executives are important to the campaigns of former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R), Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.); and that Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) got more such contributions than Edwards. A general lead paragraph on all the candidates -- or a lead that focused on Edwards opposing hedge funds' tax havens and then consulting for a fund that had one -- would have been better than the lead that appeared on the story.

Susan Glasser, assistant managing editor for National news, thinks my criticism is unfair. "It is our job to weigh what politicians say against what they do. We believe it is our job to unearth and put before the public as much information as possible about aspirants to the presidency -- surely our readers are well equipped to judge the relevance of information such as that presented in our story about hedge funds and the 2008 political candidates."

Reader Terry Steichen of Fairfax questioned an April 21 article on the Business section front page headlined "Federal Overseer of Student Loans Invested in Lenders." The story, by Amit R. Paley, said that Sara Martinez Tucker, the No. 3 official at the Education Department, had reported in financial disclosure forms filed in October 2006 that she owned stock in Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, J.P. Morgan Chase and Wachovia, five of the six largest student lenders. All of the investments were in the $1,000 to $3,000 range, well within ethics rules.

The story said: "The disclosure comes in the midst of a widening student loan scandal exposing financial ties among lenders, universities and government officials."

Steichen felt the story was "incredibly misleading. . . . What the article didn't mention is that these five are each very large public corporations that do a huge amount of business in varied fields . . . Why was the story published and . . . with such an accusatory headline? Why was it placed on the front page of the Business section?"

The investments were small and the story was problematic, of interest only because of the student loan scandal. An Education Department spokesman called Paley back a few days later to say she had learned the stock belonged to Tucker's husband as part of a 401(k) retirement savings plan and was sold as Tucker went to work at the department. That was revealed in the last three paragraphs of an April 24 story on another facet of the student loan scandal.

The first story was on the cover. The rollback of it was buried. The second story should have had its own headline and more prominent display. Business editors agreed.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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