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Critics decry local paper's coverage

At the April 11 press conference held after all charges against the indicted Duke lacrosse players were dropped, defense attorney Jim Cooney didn't mince words about The Durham Herald-Sun.

"People were afraid to speak truth to power," he told a live national audience, hours after the players were fully exonerated. "If The Durham Herald-Sun had bothered to stand up and demand proper processes, the presumption of innocence and doing things the way our constitution provides, do you think [Durham District Attorney] Mike Nifong would have rolled forward?"

In an interview with The Chronicle Monday, Cooney said he singled out The Herald-Sun because of its unique power as the local paper.

"I don't think Mr. Nifong paid much attention to The New York Times and Newsweek," he said. "If The Durham Herald-Sun had stood up for due process and justice, he would've been forced to pay attention."

The incident, however, was only the most visible in an ongoing litany of criticisms against the paper. Accusations from defense attorneys, bloggers and other media have slammed The Herald-Sun for what they have called sensational editorials, news coverage slanted toward Nifong and questionable editorial decisions on behalf of Editor-in-Chief Bob Ashley, Trinity '70 and former managing editor of The Chronicle.

"The Herald-Sun was by far the worst [in the country]-it's worse than The New York Times," said KC Johnson, author of the Durham-in-Wonderland blog that attracted national attention for its coverage of the case. "If journalism schools in the future want to look how a paper got a major local story entirely wrong, they can look at The Herald-Sun."

Ashley, however, said his newspaper has acted correctly in making editorial decisions and approaching its news coverage throughout the past year. "Am I glad that innocent people have been exonerated by the process? Yes," Ashley said. "But I do think we did as even-handed a job as the circumstances argued at the time."

Early editorial portrayal

As the local paper, The Herald-Sun has written a staggering number of pieces on the case-more than 400 articles and editorials since the story first broke in March 2006. But from the very beginning, critics said the paper's coverage came down strongly against the lacrosse players, particularly on the editorial pages.

"The Herald-Sun has consistently failed to presume the innocence of these three people," said Bill Green, ombudsman for The Washington Post from 1980 to 1981 and a Durham resident. "They leapt to judgment early and stayed with that thinking."

On March 28, 2006-before many details had been revealed about the case-the editorial board excoriated the behavior of lacrosse players in light of Crystal Gail Mangum's allegations of rape.

Ashley, who oversees both news and editorial content at The Herald-Sun, is one of three main members on the editorial board.

"There's no question the student-athletes were probably guilty of all the usual offenses-underage drinking, loud partying, obnoxious behavior," a March 28 editorial stated. "But the allegations of rape bring the students' arrogant frat-boy culture to a whole new, sickening level."

Two days later, the board again condemned the entire lacrosse team for past behavior. "If one had to predict a Duke team that was capable of getting into big trouble, you might pick lacrosse," the board said. "For years, the team has had a reputation for loud, obnoxious partying and belligerent behavior."

In the same editorial, the board stopped just short of presuming the players' guilt: "In many ways, they have themselves to blame for the current trouble. We shouldn't pronounce anyone guilty, but sympathy is hard to muster."

Despite the strong sentiments in the editorials, Ashley maintained that the editorial board acted correctly considering the information known at that time.

"Our editorial criticism of the team and of the party in the early days pointed out that there was a presumption of innocence," Ashley said. "We were reflecting the circumstances and situation as it was known at the time, and I don't have any regret in doing that. I don't think we need to apologize for that conclusion."

National shift in news coverage

In the early months of the case, The Herald-Sun, like many news organizations, was critical of the players and failed to cast doubt on the information that Nifong released in his plethora of early interviews.

But unlike other media organizations, after the negative DNA results were released and the media tide began to shift against Nifong, The Herald-Sun was hesitant to change its coverage, Cooney and Green said.

"It's conspicuous that they have not attempted to correct their early coverage of this case," Green said.

Most notably, there are a number of glaring omissions and factual inaccuracies that generally went in favor of Nifong's case, Johnson said. One early example, he said, was The Herald-Sun's failure to address General Order 4077, which implicated the prosecution for violating line-up procedures.

Additionally, when Sgt. Mark Gottlieb, a lead investigator in the lacrosse case, came under fire in September for misconduct, The Herald-Sun remained mute for days-only to publish an article that supported Gottlieb's behavior in targeting students.

And when James Coleman, a prominent Duke law professor who specializes in criminal proceedings, began to publicly criticize Nifong, The Herald-Sun also did not cover it.

In a Nov. 2 article following a "60 Minutes" report, The Herald-Sun also contradicted the program's assertion that Mangum had returned to work at a strip club shortly after the March 13 party, despite allegations that she had sustained severe injuries from the alleged rape and assault. The next day, The Herald-Sun retracted its claims.

"John in Carolina," another prominent blogger focusing on the lacrosse case who only identifies himself as a Duke alumnus, noted in a July 10 post that a Herald-Sun headline-"Duke lacrosse player labeled 'instigator'"-shaped the news in a way that improperly portrayed defendant Collin Finnerty, without providing proper evidence for doing so in the resulting article. The article referred to Finnerty's pending assault charge from an incident in Washington, D.C.

In another article Aug. 1, Herald-Sun reporter John Stevenson wrote that "previously undisclosed matches" of DNA evidence were found connecting defendant David Evans, Trinity '06, to the scene. The same evidence, however, had been revealed in an April 11 Raleigh News and Observer story, and other news outlets reported similar information the week of April 10.

Ashley said any instances of inaccurate information or omitted coverage were only a few exceptions in a year of otherwise balanced and strong reporting.

"We've approached it conscientiously, professionally and with an eye toward the fact that it has been a case that has brought out very, very strong emotions along the way," he said. "We've tried to do our best to cover it in a level-headed and even-handed way."

Cooney said Ashley's inability to admit flaws was questionable, noting that other journalists-like columnist Ruth Sheehan and Public Editor Ted Vaden at The Raleigh News and Observer and Byron Calame, public editor for The New York Times-have acknowledged some mistakes in their coverage.

Cooney added that he thought one of The Herald-Sun's most egregious moves was to downplay the revelation in December that Nifong had withheld exculpatory DNA evidence from the defense.

In a Dec. 19 editorial, The Herald-Sun editorial board wrote, "Those alleging prosecutorial misconduct have to deal with a simple fact-Nifong did turn over the data. Defense lawyers' only real complaint is that they had to fight to get it."

This response was inconsistent with a broader portrayal in the media that Nifong had committed an obvious wrong, Cooney said. "They were the only newspaper in the country who wasn't critical of it at that point," he said.

Ashley's editorial columns and recent criticisms

The Herald-Sun's editor-in-chief has also been criticized by bloggers for his decision to publish columns in the editorial pages with his byline that commented on continuing aspects of the lacrosse case and the players.

In an April 23 column titled "Duke seeks to define line between rules and freedom," Ashley wrote that there was a need to alter off-campus student behavior.

"Many are frustrated with the off-campus reputation of some students, including without dispute many members of the lacrosse team, for whom loud, late parties and disdain bordering on contempt for their neighbors are common," he wrote. "I confess to being conflicted on this."

In a July 23 column titled "Has the lacrosse case induced insanity?" Ashley noted that a shift had occurred in the media's portrayal of the lacrosse case and that new pressure had been placed on Nifong.

Instead of agreeing with this shift, Ashley cautioned readers about jumping to conclusions in the case-this time, warning against condemnation of the prosecution.

Lois Boynton, assistant professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said it is not unusual for an editor-in-chief to write an opinion-based column, but noted that Ashley's decision to comment on issues that would inevitably arise in future coverage was, in fact, problematic.

"If the stories start to reflect too much the leaning of the individual, the readers will begin to question the validity of the stories," said Boynton, who specializes in ethics. "[Ashley] is pushing his luck a little bit here."

Although he wouldn't comment on The Herald-Sun's coverage, Vaden said Ashley's decision to comment on the issues of ongoing coverage was not clear-cut. "It would be unusual to take a position, say in the Duke lacrosse case, about the issues of the case. I suppose that's unusual," he said. "[But] the smaller the paper, the less unusual that would be."

Since all charges were dropped against the three players, The Herald-Sun has continued to receive criticism.

The paper published a story April 17 with the headline, "'Innocent' declaration angers local activists," about negative responses to the attorney general's ruling. The article, however, failed to provide more than half a sentence of background information on Cooper's decision on the case-leaving the opinions of the protesters unbalanced, some critics have said.

A few days earlier, The Herald-Sun published an evaluation of Cooper's statements on "60 Minutes." In the opening paragraphs, The Herald-Sun reported that Cooper said "the strains the Duke lacrosse case inflicted on Durham's racial climate played a role in his decision last week to declare the three defendants innocent of sexually assaulting an exotic dancer."

Cooper had never, in fact, made such a statement, and a correction had to be run.

"We were probably stretched a bit thin-the writer who was doing it was hurried, and probably, being Sunday night, backed up by other editing," Ashley said. "We made a mistake. Human beings in this business make mistakes all the time."

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