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Student editor, blogger recall the case that rocked Duke University

By Billy O'Keefe

MELANIE HICKEN / The Working Press
The Duke lacrosse case is closed, but discussion of the case is far from over.
“It’s become a textbook example precisely because it highlights the profound influence the media has today in shaping news and the troubles modern media faces,” said Ryan McCartney, editor of Duke University’s independent student newspaper, The Chronicle.
McCartney was one of three speakers during a panel discussion at the SPJ convention Thursday. Liz Hansen, an Eastern Kentucky University communications professor and member of the SPJ National Ethics Committee, moderated the discussion. Ted Vaden, public editor of the Raleigh News & Observer, which broke the story, and blogger K.C. Johnson also shared insights on the case.
Johnson and McCartney believe their situations as a blogger and a Duke student journalist, respectively, gave them advantages over mainstream media outlets in covering the case.
“Blogs seemed to play an unusually large role in the case,” said Johnson, author of the Durham-in-Wonderland blog as well as “Until Proven Innocent,” which chronicle the events and media coverage of the Duke lacrosse case.
Blogs provided news and information, but they also critiqued mainstream media coverage. Johnson described the coverage as split between the “very good” and the “very bad” with not much in between. He singled out The Duke Chronicle as having the best overall coverage. He cited The Herald Sun in Durham, N.C., and The New York Times as having some of the worst.
“The blogs focusing on the case often knew more about the case than The New York Times,” he said.
Johnson cited several reasons he thinks blogs’ format and niche reporting offered structural advantages in covering the case.
Structurally, he said, blogs did not have the time or space constraints of traditional media. A blogger could post a report of any length at any time, which is not the case for a newspaper or news station. The case was document driven, he said, which called for lengthy explanations and analysis that traditional media did not have the time or space to provide.
“People could get their news first from blogs,” Johnson said.
Student journalist McCartney never expected people across the country would be reading his paper’s coverage of what he called “a bizarre and unfortunate series of events.”
“The bottom line is a story like the Duke lacrosse scandal is something that a 20-year-old journalist is not prepared to handle,” said McCartney. He began his role as executive editor of the paper only days before charges were filed against two players.
Ironically, their lack of experience as student journalists ended up providing one of their main advantages in reporting on the events, McCartney said. Their insecurity led to extremely careful and objective reporting, he said.
“That discomfort was crucial,” he said.
McCartney cited the proximity to the case as the student newspaper’s major advantage. As students, he said, they were able to cite inconsistencies with the mainstream media’s coverage of their campus.
“We knew a very different Duke,” he said. “As students, the story literally hit home for us.”