Daily Archives: August 14, 2006

Put this one in the “Months Late and a Whole Mess O Dollars Short ” file.

“It’s a reporter’s greatest fear. He has been working for a month on a major investigative piece, part of the biggest ongoing local news story of the year. It runs as the lead story on the Sunday front page. And the key fact that begins the article is wrong. “

Oh really? Hear that Beltway whores?

But back up a mo. We’re not talking about BushCo. We’re talking aout the Duke University LaCrosse team.

“News & Observer investigative reporter Joseph Neff didn’t sleep at all last Sunday night, after he learned of the error in his article headlined, “Duke lacrosse files show gaps in DA’s case.” The opening paragraphs of the story said Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong had proceeded with rape indictments against two lacrosse players the same day he asked a police investigator to look into whether the accuser’s injuries might have had causes other than the alleged rape. “

Oh my stars! He lost sleep! Imagine what the woman felt.

Nah, we can’t imagine that. Not supposed to anyway. She was a black stripper ie. trash. Nohting to get excited about, right?

“That information was wrong.”

Gasp! Clutch the pearls! Newspapers are printing wrong information? Getouttaheah!

Nifong actually had asked investigator Michele Soucie for background information about the accuser on April 4, nearly two weeks before the indictments, not on April 17, as the story said. The N&O ran a front-page correction Tuesday that said, in part, “This error changes the implications of the first five paragraphs of the story: that the conversation between Nifong and Soucie was an example of the words and actions of police and investigators outpacing the facts in the file.”

Pace is everso important, donchaknow.

In the story, Neff set forth numerous other examples of a shaky prosecution case, but the erroneous information, coming at the top of the story, was Exhibit A. The story was accompanied on the front page by a reproduction of Soucie’s notes, labeled “Excerpts from Soucie’s notes on April 17.”
“I’m not aware of an error like this in a story like this in my 20 years on the job,” said Deputy Managing Editor Steve Riley, who as the editor who handled the story took responsibility with Neff for the mistake. “Certainly, it’s the most significant error that I’ve had a part in.”

Is it now?

HERE’S HOW THE ERROR OCCURRED, according to Neff and Riley: Neff had obtained copies of Soucie’s hand-written notes on the investigation, which are part of some 1,800 pages of documents supplied by the DA to defense attorneys (but not all made public).
On one page, Soucie wrote that Nifong instructed her “to nail down what victim did on the day before arriving at 610 N. Buchanan so we can show that she did not receive trauma prior to incident.” On that page was the circled date, 4/17/06. Neff took that to mean the date she talked to Nifong. But elsewhere in the notes, Soucie had written 4/4/06, the correct date, and Neff missed that notation.
“He misread the document. I didn’t challenge him on the document, and therefore it went into the newspaper,” Riley said.
Before publication, Neff did try to reach Soucie by phone and twice went to Nifong’s office in Durham seeking comment. Neither responded. The prosecution and defense are under a judge’s orders not to talk about the case. (I tried to reach Nifong last week, without response.)
Neff learned of his error Sunday night (the sleepless one), double-checked Monday, informed his editors and with them crafted a correction that went onto The N&O’s Web site Monday and onto the front page of Tuesday’s paper.

Cue Aretha Franklin’s rendition of “Nessun Dorma”

From a reader standpoint, several questions arise. Could the error have been prevented? What does it say about The N&O’s fact-checking system? And, most important, what is the effect on the paper and its credibility with readers?
Or, as reader Chris McLaughlin of Durham put it: “In this particular case, the lead of the story — the real hook to draw in readers — was based on incorrect dates. Without such a lead, the story is much less effective. Was there extra attention paid to this article? Should there have been?”

All together now: “Well DUH!”

NEFF IS THE FIRST TO ACKNOWLEDGE that he should have caught the error. There were “red flags all over the place,” he said, including other documents that would have called the April 17 date into question. “If I had done a better job cross-referencing, I would have caught it,” he said. Neff had spent the Friday before publication doing such fact-checking.
The story was read by six editors, and none challenged Neff on the chronology in the opening paragraphs. Riley did review the documents used by Neff but did not notice the date discrepancies.
Part of the reason Neff was not challenged more closely is that he is one of The N&O’s best reporters, experienced in criminal justice investigative reporting. “He’s a terrific reporter, and I trusted him then,” said Riley. “And I trust him now.”

The same way the NYT trusted Judy Miller.

Melanie Sill, The N&O’s executive editor, said she doesn’t think the case indicates a flaw in the paper’s fact-checking system, but it will raise consciousness going forward. “Editors will be more diligent about talking to reporters about what they have fact-checked. Any error does raise a question about your potential for errors.”
She also said that the error, while serious, didn’t take away from the basic findings of the story about gaps in the DA’s legal case. She noted that the correction was the first The N&O has had to make in nearly five months of reporting on the lacrosse story. (Another, the misspelling of Soucie’s first name, was corrected Thursday.)
The erroneous information, Sill said, “was at the top of the story, so that increases the importance, but it wasn’t the central fact in the story. So the story was right, but that detail was wrong.”

The Devil’s in the details, dear. And she doesn’t wear Prada.

THE BIG QUESTION FOR ME, in the aftermath of this case, is the effect on The N&O’s credibility and its effectiveness in continuing to report on the lacrosse case. Will readers be less confident of future reporting?
Not from the immediate reaction I received. Most of the two dozen or so e-mails and blog comments excused this error and praised Neff’s work, which was The N&O’s closest examination to date of the DA’s handling of the lacrosse case. Many of the comments, it should be said, were from people who have been highly critical of Nifong’s performance and The N&O’s reporting of the case. Several noted that the Soucie-Nifong exchange, regardless of the date, still raised questions about the prosecution’s case.
But there were some who questioned the handling of the error and the correction. Eric David, a law student at UNC, said: “To say that an error renders the ‘implication’ of the first five paragraphs of a story obsolete, but ‘does not affect the accuracy of the remainder of the story’ is just not acceptable. The story … was the implication. If the implication underlying the story is false, the whole story is false.”
I asked two outside professionals for their perspectives. Bob Steele, who teaches journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute in Florida, said he thought the correction, which he read, should have been more forthcoming. “If there was a mistake … I believe that the transparency and accountability should have gone to greater length. To not only say ‘we blew it,’ but to give readers information as to how the mistake happened.”
But Jean Folkerts, dean of journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill, credited the paper for correcting the error quickly and prominently. “I think that running the correction on the front page the way you did was a good sign of honest journalism,” she said. “People are human. People make mistakes. I think the best way to deal with that is to be honest about the mistake.”

Then there should be some honesty about the consequences of the “mistake” too. Nearly everything written and/or uttered about this case has come from the accused’s lawyers. What they said about the accuser was printed with abolute credulousness by newspapers far and wide. As a result to this day those who know of the case regard the accusation of rape as highly suspect — even though charges have been fled against severalLaCrosse players. Consequently when the case goes to trail,the D.A. will be hard-pressed to find an untainted juror — the press having conspired with the defense to drag the victim through the mud.

Final Thoughts: I think the error was substantial

No shit, Sherlock!

It could at worst undermine some readers’ confidence in the paper’s reporting of this case and at the least contribute to a perception of journalistic sloppiness. We don’t need either.
The paper should use the incident as an opportunity to redouble its efforts to ensure reporting accuracy — re-examining its fact-checking systems and holding sessions with all staffers to emphasize accuracy fundamentals. That is done here regularly, but not recently.
I also wondered: Can Neff continue to report on the lacrosse case with credibility among readers and the various actors in the lacrosse story? Removing him from the story would send a message to readers about the paper’s commitment to impartiality and accuracy, in the lacrosse case and in News & Observer journalism in general.
But it would also be a loss to the paper’s coverage because Neff is a solid investigative reporter whose skills and experience are particularly suited to the lacrosse story. His Sunday report — save the error — plowed new ground in the lacrosse case. Sill and Riley said they retain full confidence in him.
I think Neff should remain on the case. His mistake was one of carelessness, not of malice. Removing him would be a form of scapegoating, in the sense of blaming one person for an error that was allowed by a team of professionals. And it would be depriving the paper, and readers, of The N&O’s best journalism

Final thoughts from Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt — as originallysung by the great (and much-missed) Jerry Orbach:

“Rape!
R-a-a-a-pe!
Raa-aa-aa-pe!

A pretty rape!
A literary rape!

We’ve the obvious open schoolboy rape,
With little mandolins and perhaps a cape.
The rape by coach; it’s little in request.
The rape by day, but the rape by night is best.

Just try to see it.
And you will soon agree, señors,
Why
Invite regret,
When you can get the sort of rape
You’ll never ever forget.

You can get the rape emphatic.
You can get the rape polite.
You can get the rape with Indians:
A very charming sight.
You can get the rape on horseback;
They’ll all say it’s new and gay.
So you see the sort of rape
Depends on what you pay.
It depends on what you
Pay.

The kids will love it.
It depends on what you pay!
So why be stingy?
It depends on what you —

The spectacular rape,
With costumes ordered from the East.
Requires rehearsal
And takes a dozen men at least.
A couple of singers,
And a string quartet.
A major production.
Requires a set.

Sounds expensive!

Just try to see it.
And you will soon si,si señors,
Why
Invite regret,
When you can get the sort of rape
You’ll never ever forget.

You can get the rape emphatic.
You can get the rape polite.
You can get the rape with Indians:
A very charming sight.
You can get the rape on horseback;
They’ll all say it’s new and gay.
So you see the sort of rape
Depends on what you pay.
It depends on what you
Pay.

So why be stingy?
It depends on what you pay!
The kids will love it.
It depends on what you —

The comic rape.
Perhaps it’s just a trifle too unique.
Romantic rape:
Done while canoeing on a moonlit creek.
The gothic rape!
I play “Valkyrie” on a bass bassoon!
The drunken rape.
It’s done completely in a cheap saloon.

The rape Venetian
Needs a blue lagoon.
The rape with moonlight
Or without a moon.
Moonlight is expensive but it’s in demand.
The military rape:
It’s done with drummer and a band.

You understand?
I understand.
It’s very grand.
It’s very grand.
It’s done with drums and a great big brass band!
Yeah!

Just try to see it.
I see it!
I see it!
And you will soon si,si señors,
Why
Invite regret,
When you can get the sort of rape
You’ll never ever forget.

You can get the rape emphatic.
You can get the rape polite.
You can get the rape with Indians:
A very charming sight.
You can get the rape on horseback;
They’ll all say it’s new and gay.
So you see the sort of rape
Depends on what you pay.
So you see the sort of rape
Depends on what you pay.
So you see the sort of rape
Depends on what you pay.
So you see the sort of rape
Depends on what you pay.
Depends on what you pay.
Depends on what you pay.
Depends on what you pay.
Depends on what you pay.

So why be stingy?
It depends on what you pay!
The kids will love it.
It depends on what you

Ra-aa-aa-pe!
Ole!”