Editor: Paper should have seen truth in Duke case earlier

To admit you have made mistakes may be difficult, especially if you are publicly admitting that your newspaper made errors about a rape case.

Bob Ashley, editor of the Durham Herald-Sun in North Carolina, discussed his newspaper’s role covering the Duke University lacrosse case, in which a woman accused three Duke lacrosse players of raping her at a party.

The Herald-Sun began covering the case in March 2006. In the following months, the charges against the players were dismissed, the case’s prosecutor was disbarred and the media was widely criticized for its coverage.

“For many of us living in the vortex of this story for 25 months, it seems as if one common theme through all of this has been the exaggeration of story lines from different vantages, at different times,” Ashley said.

Yesterday was Ashley’s first time speaking alone in front of a group of people about the lacrosse case. During his speech, he focused on the factors that “kindled the fire of the Duke lacrosse case,” including race relations and the dynamic between Duke University and the surrounding community of Durham, N.C.

Questions after the speech from members of the audience dealt with the paper’s role in covering the Duke lacrosse case and the effects the case has had on the paper. Several of the 100-plus people in attendance asked what mistakes Ashley thought the Herald-Sun made.

Ashley said the newspaper’s small size made it difficult to get facts as quickly as bigger media outlets and get all of the facts in time to see there was no grounds to the prosecutor’s rape accusations.

“Hindsight is a wonderful thing,” Ashley said. “In hindsight, should we have come to that conclusion sooner? Yes.”

In an interview after his speech, Ashley said the Duke lacrosse case is not the first time he has had to take heat as an editor for his paper’s actions.

While he was editor of the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer before working at the Herald-Sun, the Western Kentucky newspaper published a series of columns by a woman who claimed to be a cancer victim.

More than a month into the weekly series, the woman said she did not have cancer, but AIDS. The Messenger-Inquirer fired her for not telling the truth, however a large part of the community saw this as a reaction to the woman having AIDS.

Ashley said criticism of how his newspapers have handled the Duke case and the incident at the Messenger-Inquirer has changed the way he works.

“One of the things I tell people is that every news editor should be the subject of the story, to keep them humble,” he said.

The Duke case and the backlash against the media have caused newspaper employees to “think long and hard,” Ashley said, but it may be difficult to apply some of the lessons learned during the 25-month-long case.

“(The question) is: what are you going to do next time?” he said. “No story has raised the sort of issues this one has.”