This story is part of our coverage of the 10th anniversary of the lacrosse case. Our other coverage can be found here.
Eleven days after the off-campus party that became the catalyst for the Duke lacrosse case, The Raleigh News and Observer ran its first front page story on the situation.
It would not be the last, and The Raleigh News and Observer would not be alone. In the days and weeks that followed, Duke’s campus became the focus of an intense media frenzy that tangled the facts of the case in clumsy narratives about privilege and power at the University.
The media coverage had an immediate impact, putting the University under a harsh spotlight that provided an imperfect framework for public perception of the case. The coverage had more lasting effects, as well—helping to keep the memory of the case alive a decade later, creating the concept of the “Duke scandal” as a common occurrence and contributing to a persistent idea of Duke lacrosse as an abstraction divorced from any specific reality.
“‘Duke lacrosse’ is really no longer about Duke. ‘Duke lacrosse’ is a shorthand for some set of circumstances,” said Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations. “To some people, ‘Duke lacrosse’ is a story about race, class and gender issues in America. To others, ‘Duke lacrosse’ is a shorthand for political correctness. For others, ‘Duke lacrosse’ is a shorthand for rushing to judgment. People see it through their various prisms. ”
“When Bad Things Happen at Good Places,” from The Boston Globe. “Sex, Lies, and Duke,” on the cover of Newsweek, over a backdrop of the players’ mug shots. “Rape Case Highlights South’s Abiding Divide” from the London-based The Guardian. And perhaps best-known, “Sex and Scandal at Duke,” the 5,000-word Rolling Stone analysis of the connection between lacrosse and campus social culture.
Within three months of the initial accusation, the lacrosse case was dissected in these pieces and hundreds of others. According to a 2007 American Journalism Review analysis of the coverage, three of the four major news networks devoted more time to Duke lacrosse than to the Iraq War in April 2006. Sexual assault, race, big-time college athletics, class, gender, privilege—the case could be reduced to fit the keywords of any number of hot-button issues.
“The media quickly latched onto a narrative too seductive to check: rich, wild, white jocks had brutalized a working class, black mother of two,” reads the American Journalism Review’s analysis.
Although the coverage was often high on drama, much of it was short on nuance and objectivity. Many outlets fixated on perceptions of Duke’s athletic culture, painting a portrait of privileged athletes who dominated the social scene and felt entitled to whatever they wanted—such as an April 2006 Los Angeles Times piece headlined, “Lax Environment: Duke lacrosse scandal reinforces a growing sense that college sports are out of control, fueled by pampered athletes with a sense of entitlement.”
Significant space was also devoted to the perceived relationship between Duke and Durham, which was often reduced to a portrayal of a wealthy institution of Northern outsiders in a Southern, working-class city, according to the American Journalism Review analysis.
“I think—and many people who follow the media would agree—that the coverage of Duke lacrosse was one of the low points of U.S. media in the last 10 years,” Schoenfeld said.
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As television crews and reporters gathered on campus, Durham became a focal point for scores of reporters, pundits and activists. It was not just Duke lacrosse and its players being scrutinized, but Duke writ large—creating an environment for students and faculty that was distracting at best and dangerous at worst.
“It emphasized for me in a way that I had never experienced before…how the media can take control of your life in a way you never imagined or anticipated,” said Sue Wasiolek, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students. “I can’t remember at what point I began to feel that, but it was relatively early on, and once I did feel that loss of control, I felt it for a very long time.”
As the case progressed, the credibility of Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong came into question, shaking the foundations of the narratives that had driven early coverage. Although the dimensions of race and privilege that had initially defined the case remained present, a new element now took center stage—the flaws behind Nifong’s rush to judgment. But in many ways the damage done by the storm of original reporting could not be reversed.
“It’s all controlled by the initial setting,” said Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs. “That’s all that people remember. People don’t remember the rest of it, and they’re not interested in any information that corrects the erroneous information. They’re just going to live with that first reaction.”
The ‘Duke scandal’
Although the media scrutiny was intense and difficult to navigate in the moment, it did not have lasting significance for the University, administrators said. They said the case proved Duke’s resilience both as an institution and as a brand, noting that no meaningful indicator of the school’s reputation—as measured by admissions statistics, donations and national ranking—showed any signs of decline.
The coverage did, however, provide what seems to be the first widespread use of the term “Duke scandal.”
“I don’t recall ‘Duke scandal,’ that term, being used prior to lacrosse,” Wasiolek said.
An analysis of Google’s Trends tool, which analyzes news coverage for specific phrases, shows that the term was not used in the media before April 2006. To look at the term’s use over time is to see a snapshot of the negative moments of Duke’s media presence in the last decade—with spikes coinciding with the Karen Owen powerpoint in October 2010, the Anil Potti fraud incident, the Pi Kappa Phi “Pilgrims and Indians” party in November 2011 the Kappa Sigma “Asia Prime” party in February 2013, the disclosure of adult film star Belle Knox as a Duke student in February 2014, the reported sexual assault allegations against basketball player Rasheed Sulaimon in March 2015 and the noose found on campus in April 2015.
Duke’s peer institutions do not appear to have such an intimate relationship with the term “scandal” in the media. There are occasional instances of “Harvard scandal,” “Stanford scandal” and others, but a graph of those terms’ use provides nothing like the repeated peaks of “Duke scandal.” For “Yale scandal,” “Northwestern scandal,” “Vanderbilt scandal” and several other schools, there are so few examples of the term that the Google Trends tool does not produce any results at all.
But there are far more similarities than differences between Duke and its peers, administrators said, and Duke is certainly not alone on the list of academically elite schools that grapple with issues such as campus sexual assault and a high-pressure social culture. Most, if not all, schools at Duke’s level are under constant media scrutiny, Schoenfeld said.
“There have been no shortage of incidents at other campuses that are dealing with their own things,” Moneta added, noting that student life at Duke is very similar to what he saw in his decade as an administrator at the University of Pennsylvania.
But several administrators noted that the media coverage of controversies at Duke has been more thorough in the years since the lacrosse case.
“I think the media has a propensity to use that term more loosely [at Duke] than it would with other institutions,” Wasiolek said.
There are a number of factors that might contribute media’s attraction to the notion of the Duke scandal. There is the institution’s visibility—its prominence in a broad variety of fields, from academics to athletics to medicine. To some, the spotlight on Duke’s controversies is a classic example of trying to knock a successful institution off its pedestal.
“Hating Duke is an art form,” Moneta said. “Not as much as it used to be, actually, but I think there’s a piece of it there—I think there are people who are thrilled that Duke is caught doing something.”
Duke does not purport to be a perfect place, Wasiolek noted, pointing in particular to the ways the school has tried to grow and change since the lacrosse case. But there is still, to some, a dangerous perception of the University as collectively arrogant.
“One of the first things that I say to people when they’re looking at Duke—to come here as a student, when they’re considering it for employment—is Duke is not perfect,” Wasiolek said. “And yet, somehow many people get the impression that we think we are, and that’s a terrible place to be.”
Many of the incidents that have garnered negative media attention for the University—not only the lacrosse case, but also the events associated with Greek life and gender dynamics—tie into old ideas of Duke’s privilege and exclusivity. The result is what Schoenfeld described as a “closed feedback loop” of stories on old stereotypes.
“Duke’s reputation, whether it’s deserved or not, is one of a student body that is very privileged, that is entitled, that is wealthy, that is smart, ambitious,” Wasiolek said. “And when you lay that on top of a sports culture of success, then what comes out at the other end of that is a tendency and propensity to try to find fault.”