Nine years later, media needs to report with caution

My seventh grade science class was talking about the Duke lacrosse rape case. It was 2006 and Durham was rocked by the scandal. It was a scandal that epitomized the drastic socioeconomic divides in a city marred by centuries of racial segmentation. And I was 12. Sitting in a racially diverse classroom arguing that the scandal of the decade might not be a scandal at all.

I was reading the newspaper and watching the news, and the media didn’t paint a promising picture for the team.There was a disgusting email that didn’t make the team look good and news outlets ran with it. The case became a scandal and dominated national headlines and by the time defense attorneys had exculpatory evidence, the national narrative had been set: this was a gang rape of a black woman by three wealthy white men.

Unlike the Duke case, the shooting of three students in Chapel Hill on Tuesday is not a question of innocence or guilt. Although he hasn’t been found guilty, Hicks turned himself in. But we don’t know the motive. And that’s where the media step in. And the motive matters – it matters if Hicks killed the students because they were Muslim or if he killed them because of a parking dispute.

And the media is tasked with covering this. The media can’t call this a hate crime because if it was a parking dispute then it belittles the credibility of news outlets when they cover actual hate crimes attacks against religious or ethnic minorities.

There were consequences in the Duke lacrosse case because the media framed its coverage over the community’s reaction, not the evidence. There were stories about rallies and columns like this.

It’s thin ice, and local media should look at the Duke case as an example of what can go wrong when the narrative swings one way. The Duke lacrosse coach resigned, the season was cancelled and job offers were pulled – all before charges were filed.

And the narrative the media portray matters. It’s a narrative dictated by what news outlets cover, who they interview, how they write. Media are the first responders to public opinion and they shape community narratives – narratives that affect law enforcement, public actions and how cases unfold in the court system.

Racial and ethnic animosity is real and it needs attention. But it needs fair attention – fair to the victims, to the perpetrators and to the community.

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