A 13-Part Series to Love or Hate

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Chandra Levy series, on Page 1 for 13 days, has provoked these kinds of comments: Lurid! Appalling! A waste of time! And these: Fascinating! Totally hooked! Riveting!

No investigation in my 2 1/2 years here has provoked such sharply opposing reader comment as the series on the seven-year-old unsolved murder of the Washington intern, who was having an affair with a congressman.

All but two of the approximately 75 readers who called or wrote to me were critical of the project; by Friday, in the online comments posted with stories, critics outnumbered fans about 410 to 70.

Yet it was clear from e-mails to the reporters -- Sari Horwitz, Scott Higham and Sylvia Moreno -- that many readers were engrossed. The series was phenomenally popular online, outpacing other recent investigative series. And, for the first time, Post reporters engaged with readers in an online dialogue through a daily Reporter's Notebook; the comments (more than 500, but with many repeaters) were mostly positive.

The critics said The Post was turning tabloid and decried the series as a waste of newsprint and time. Many readers cited other issues they felt were far more worthy of a year-long investigation; almost all said that 12 parts and an epilogue were far too much, especially on Page 1.

Each day's installment revealed new facts based on interviews and thousands of pages of documents never before accessed. Yet readers who contacted me saw the series as a rehash with little new. The suspect that the series points to, Ingmar A. Guandique, was named in a Post story in 2002 and is serving time in prison for assault. Today, a list of the most important new facts will be posted online in the Reporter's Notebook.

Philip Evans of Kensington, who said the Post "is capable of extraordinary investigative reporting," wrote that he had "learned nothing new of any importance that could not have been fully reported in a single news story" and that the series "pushes real news off Page 1 for two weeks."

Readers pointed to other murder and missing-persons cases and wondered why The Post focused on Levy. I think it's clear that it was because there was a media frenzy over her affair with Rep. Gary Condit (D-Calif.), who was driven from office. Mark Handel of the District wrote: "The articles discussing him really should have noted clearly, and at the top, that in the end basically no evidence was found implicating him in any foul play."

The series pointed out the horrible error in police communication that kept Levy's body from being discovered for months. But it was no surprise to the readers who wrote me about other errors by District police and the U.S. Park Police.

Other readers loved the serial format and looked forward to opening the paper each day for the next installment. Ginny Hines Parry of Alexandria wrote: "As the mother of two teenage daughters, I am very thankful that the Washington Post has so thoroughly reviewed the case and placed the resultant stories prominently on the front page. . . . The parents of the young woman believed that their daughter would return home safely. And, failing that, the parents wanted to trust that those responsible for killing their only daughter would be brought to justice. They are still waiting. And so is the public."

Those who liked the series hung on every word, had their own theories and said they learned from the behind-the-scenes approach. Robert Thompson of South Riding wrote to one of the reporters: "If your series on Chandra Levy doesn't win some sort of prestigious award it will be a crime. This is by far and away some of the best writing I've ever read in The Post. You should be proud of this one. It's so intriguing and riveting."

Jeff Leen, assistant managing editor for investigations, said, "It is a good reader and it is D.C.'s most famous unsolved murder, but more importantly it is an accountability piece about egregious District and Park Police screw-ups. It is also a tale of the tabloid and mainstream press pack journalism that helped derail the investigation. The series was conceived as both an ongoing evolution of the way we do projects and an attempt to experiment with new forms on the Web. From the beginning, the motivation and purpose was police accountability as well as trying to get to the bottom of why a famous murder remained unsolved."

The serial format has been used by many newspapers -- most notably, "Black Hawk Down" in 1997 in the Philadelphia Inquirer -- but only once recently in The Post, with a mostly online series of 27 parts about a top Washington lobbyist.

Several readers thought the murders of African Americans in the District had been slighted for one white woman who wasn't even from Washington. And Robert E. Pierre, a Post Metro reporter, said that the emphasis on Levy "seems like either an awful big coincidence or just recognition that . . . a white life is worth more than a black one."

Pierre said it was "unconscionable that we would devote 12 parts and a year to the investigation of this one death. About 200 people are killed in this city every year, most of them black and male. But the one that captures the 'world,' according to us, is the death of a 24-year-old white woman who had a relationship with a congressman."

Patricia Turner of Silver Spring said she loves The Post: "I am appalled, however, that The Post has seen fit to make this overdone rehashing of the Chandra Levy story front-page news when there is so much more which is important to discuss . . . Moreover, the overt disdain for women of color who die or disappear and are relegated to a few sentences in the back of the Metro section is absolutely heartbreaking."

Leen pointed out that The Post did a series in 2000 called "Fatal Flaws" that dealt with faulty police work in 200 murder cases in which almost all the victims were African American.

The series was well reported and written, and it nailed police incompetence in stories of accessible length. But, to me, the project wasn't worth 13 days, all on Page 1, and the new information wasn't highlighted sufficiently so that readers, especially the ones who had followed the story earlier, could easily tell what had not been reported before. It was simply too much for this impatient, time-starved reader who wanted to know what the reporters found out right way.

To Leen, that "would have ruined the suspense and defeated the entire purpose of our attempt to find a new form of storytelling. We strongly feel that the reader needs to experience the story as it happened in real time to understand how and why the investigation went awry."

He's right about that, but the suspense might have held even if the first piece had better foreshadowed the major findings and readers had been told in a box what was new each day. Many of the pieces could have run inside the paper, with a Page 1 key, or only on the Web.

A longer version of this column appears on washingtonpost.com. Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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