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Q & A with Ryan McCartney

Ryan McCartney served as editor of the 102nd volume of The Chronicle in 2006-2007, when three Duke lacrosse players falsely accused of raping an exotic dancer at a team party were exonerated. Since graduating in 2008, McCartney received a masters in political communication at Dublin City University on a Mitchell Scholarship. He currently lives in Arlington, Va., and works as an associate editor on the msnbc.com politics team at the NBC News bureau in Washington, D.C. Five years after the March 13 party, The Chronicle’s Taylor Doherty and Lindsey Rupp spoke with McCartney about his memories of overseeing coverage of the case.

The Chronicle: How did you feel going into your editorship knowing your volume would be largely defined by the lacrosse case and how you handled it?

Ryan McCartney: Well, I was elected editor a month before the case broke and didn’t take over until May, so there was a two-month period where our volume—me and the other top editors of Volume 102—were, in a sense, “in training” during the lacrosse case. My hat goes off to the previous editor, Seyward Darby [Trinity ’07], and her team. They really set the precedent that we tried to build on my year.

In the beginning, I really didn’t think too much about how our volume would be defined by the case. Honestly, we were all just focused on each new story and each new development as it cropped up. I think there was a sense—shared by my volume and the volume before—that we had been thrown into the middle of something that we weren’t entirely prepared for. I mean, here’s a college pulled in different directions by an emotionally wrought case that has garnered national media attention, and we’re on the front lines, in a sense. That’s a lot of pressure. It was nerve-wracking. But it was also thrilling. We knew that we were positioned right where we needed to be to cover the case well. We knew we had the opportunity to serve as the go-to forum for the Duke community, writ large, at a time when it really needed one. We were chronicling a defining moment in the history of Duke. That’s immensely exhilarating. It’s why you become a journalist, I think, to be in that kind of position.

TC: How did coverage of the lacrosse case define your time at Duke?

RM: Covering the lacrosse case was the singular most defining experience of my time at Duke, hands down. It was a culmination of my time at The Chronicle and the day-to-day decisions I made that year shaped—and still shape—how I write and how I think and how I figure things out, generally. The case proved to be quite an education.

TC: What are you proudest about concerning The Chronicle’s coverage of the lacrosse case? What’s your biggest regret—if you have one?

RM: I was incredibly proud of our online coverage, led by Steve Veres [Trinity ’07]. Some of the biggest twists and turns in the case occurred when we weren’t putting out print issues—at 6 p.m. on a Friday, say, or over our Winter Break. In addition, our readership expanded well beyond the parameters of the campus, making the website that much more crucial. Steve pushed us to break from the once-a-day, 5-days-a-week mold The Chronicle has always been in and utilize online media as a means of getting information out there and creating a forum for people interested in following Duke news and the Duke lacrosse case.

In terms of actual coverage, I think we were dispassionate when we needed to be, but probing when we could be. I think we did nuance well, which we had to on this story. We also did a fair amount of meta-reporting as well—that is, reporting on the people reporting on the case. I would point out that the sports section, led by Greg Beaton [Trinity ’08], was tremendously strong throughout the whole story. Our coverage would not have been nearly what it was if not for him.

You always have regrets—stories you wish you had run, sources you wish you had pushed a little harder to get. I think we could have done a better job of making The Chronicle online (which I just praised, I know) a better forum for constructive dialogue. We were inundated with comments and often the good elements in those discussions were lost amid the noise.

My own regret: I wish I had had the chance to sit down with then-District Attorney Mike Nifong at some point when I was editor to get his view on the whole case. Of course, that never happened.

TC: No students currently on campus were at Duke during the lacrosse. What was campus culture like at the time, and do you get the impression that there has been a shift since then?

RM: I know, it’s hard to believe that no current undergrad experienced the lacrosse case. I just realized that the other day, actually.

I haven’t been on campus with any regularity since I graduated so I think it would be somewhat presumptuous for me to talk about how campus culture may have changed or not changed since 2006. I would venture to say that Duke’s campus culture today approximates what it was before the case, although maybe people are a bit more cautious than they were before.

I think it’s fair to say that the case is part of the University’s Zeitgeist now. Duke became, for a while, shorthand for a lot of the campus culture issues a lot of colleges across the country deal with. The “Duke brand” is no longer good basketball and good academics, period. When you apply for a job, interviewers are just as likely to ask you about what it was like being on campus during the Duke lacrosse case. That’s a pretty substantial change, I would say.

The big question we all asked by the summer of 2006 or so was what will the lacrosse case mean for Duke, in the long term? Five years later, it’s still unclear. I think only time will tell whether or not it ever fully fades away.

TC: How often to people ask you about serving as editor during the lacrosse case, and what is the first story you tell them?

RM: It still comes up, for sure, along with the accompanying, “What was that like?” question. It’s interesting, I’ve found the lacrosse case is almost a touchstone when you mention it. Because everyone knows a little something about it, and, like sports or politics, it seems everyone has developed some kind of opinion on the case, even if it’s just, “It’s a shame what happened to those boys, isn’t it?”

The first story I tell them? I guess I usually recount what it was like waiting outside the Durham prison with the editor at the time, Seyward, and a swarm of cameras as the first two players were brought in at something like 4:30 a.m. Then I go to the press conference in Raleigh during which Attorney General Roy Cooper said all of the players were “innocent.” The word “INNOCENT” ran across the top of The Chronicle’s front page the next day. It was an end to a major part of the lacrosse case and a culmination of our coverage over the course of the previous year. A framed copy of that issue hangs in my apartment right now.

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