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Q & A with Seyward Darby

Seyward Darby served as editor of the 101st volume of The Chronicle in 2005-2006, when three Duke lacrosse players were falsely accused of raping an exotic dancer at a party held by the team. Since graduating in 2007, Darby moved to Washington, D.C. and works for The New Republic, where she serves as deputy online editor. Now five years since the March 13 party, The Chronicle’s Taylor Doherty and Lindsey Rupp spoke with Darby about her memories of overseeing coverage of the case.

The Chronicle: When was the first time you remember hearing about the lacrosse party? When did you realize the true scope of the storyline—that it would attract the national attention that it did?

Seyward Darby: I heard about it while I was about to go up to the top of the Empire State Building, on a very cold and windy night in March. I had gone to New York for Spring Break, and my news editor called and said there had been a rape. Initially, we were interested because the University had just purchased a bunch of properties in the Trinity Park neighborhood and, if a crime had been committed in one of those houses, the implications for the University could have been big, we thought. But then, the story ballooned beyond anything we could have imagined. Right after Duke's men's basketball team fell out of the NCAA Tournament, which usually more or less marks the end of big news for The Chronicle each year, the lacrosse players were DNA-tested. It was madness from there on out, for the rest of my time as editor. The moment I knew it really was going to be a blockbuster national story was when The New York Times called my office asking for help in getting a copy of the search warrant for the Buchanan house. The New York Times calling The Chronicle—that doesn’t happen every day.

TC: Is there anything you would do differently about the way The Chronicle pursued stories or covered the storyline?

SD: I was proud of the coverage we did. We remained as even-handed as any publication covering the story, even as sentiments on both sides of the did-they-do-it debate were deepening and, in some cases, spiraling out of control. That said, we could have done things better: We were slow to start on the story, and thus played catch up for a couple of days. We also could have worked more to play up our strengths—our knowledge of Duke, the off-campus neighborhoods and the lacrosse program, which national media didn’t know nearly as much about. We also probably could have, early on, done an in-depth profile or series of stories on [Durham District Attorney] Mike Nifong, who turned out to be so pivotal in the lacrosse saga. We never gave him more of a platform than we should have, I believe, but we also could have gotten inside his head and experience more in the initial phase of things.

TC: You gave many interviews during the case, several of which were televised. Why did you decide to be interviewed? How did this affect your personal involvement with coverage or your time as editor?

SD: My first interview was on a local station, and, after that, as the national networks descended, everyone was looking to talk to someone from The Chronicle: Fox, ESPN, CNN, etc. Some producers even came into the office uninvited seeking information. In part, I took on the interviews because I thought it was important to be [the] buffer between the newspaper and the rest of the media, so that my reporters and editors could do their jobs. What’s more, I thought it was important for someone from our paper to be a voice of reason in the coverage—to be even-keeled about what was happening, as various reporters and shows were trying to sensationalize it. Lastly, it was a big moment for the paper as an institution. We were able to show off our reporting chops in the most professional light ever cast on The Chronicle, and I wanted to let the world see that we were doing great work.

In terms of how it affected my involvement, I did minimal reporting on the story and focused on macro questions, along with my news editor: what to put in the paper which day, who to send to cover what aspect of the story, what were we missing in our reporting. I thought it was important to be the public face of the paper and its chief organizer, but I had a really talented staff—Steve Veres, Sarah Kwak and Mike Van Pelt, to name a few—who did a lot of the heavy lifting on the story. They deserve a ton of credit for how well the newspaper did in covering what was a monster of a situation.

TC: How did your experiences with the lacrosse case affect your time after your editorship and after you left Duke?

SD: Immediately after ending my time as editor, in June 2006, I went to Southeast Asia for the whole summer. While there, anytime I mentioned that I was from Duke, people—mostly tourists and expats—wanted to talk about lacrosse. I was even recognized in an airport. I got an e-mail one day from Nicholas Kristof at The New York Times asking for a piece of information about the case because he was thinking of writing about it. My senior year, when I still worked at The Chronicle, I was asked to write about the case for The (Raleigh) News and Observer and to sit on a panel about it at Duke Law. On a plane once that year, I saw the guy who played Mr. Belding on “Saved by the Bell” wearing a Duke lacrosse hat—out of support or what, I’m not sure—and we had a brief conversation about it. In other words, lacrosse wasn’t really escapable.

Since leaving Duke, lacrosse still comes up. In my job interview at The New Republic, where I’ve now worked for almost three years, a good portion of the discussion was about how we covered the case. People I meet will sometimes calculate, when they hear I graduated from Duke in 2007, and realize, “Oh! You were there for the lacrosse scandal.” Inevitably, they then want to talk about it. Friends or colleagues will occasionally stumble across a CNN transcript with my name in it on the Web and send it to me. These instances have diminished somewhat over the years, and I’m sure they will continue to do so. But I doubt lacrosse will ever be gone completely from my life.

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