Michael Nifong, prosecutor in the Duke lacrosse rape case, resigned and was disbarred. The news media incurred no such penalties, says the American Journalism Review. No loss of license, no disciplinary panels, no prolonged public humiliation for the reporters, columnists, cable TV pundits, editorial writers and editors who trumpeted the “Duke lacrosse rape case” and even the “gang-rape case” in front-page headlines, on the nightly news and on strident cable shoutfests. The media deserve a public reckoning, too, a remonstrance for coverage that–with admirable exceptions–all too eagerly embraced the inflammatory statements of a prosecutor in the midst of a tough election campaign. Fueled by Nifong, the media latched onto a narrative too seductive to check: rich, wild, white jocks had brutalized a working class, black mother of two.
“It was too delicious a story,” says Daniel Okrent, a former New York Times public editor, who is critical of the Times’ coverage and that of many other news organizations. “It conformed too well to too many preconceived notions of too many in the press: white over black, rich over poor, athletes over non-athletes, men over women, educated over non-educated. Wow. That’s a package of sins that really fit the preconceptions of a lot of us.” The journalism review says the lessons of the media’s rush to judgment rank among journalism’s most basic tenets: Be fair; stick to the facts; question authorities; don’t assume; pay attention to alternative explanations. “I think that you begin by being prudent,” Okrent says. “And that’s not the way that the American press began on this story.”