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Sex, Lies & The Media

The lead story on last night's "60 Minutes" concerned the Duke rape case. The piece lays out evidence that suggests that the charges against the three indicted lacrosse players may be false.

"Over the past six months, 60 Minutes has examined nearly the entire case file, more than 2,000 documents, including police reports, witness statements and medical records," says Ed Bradley in his introduction. "The evidence 60 Minutes has seen reveals disturbing facts about the conduct of the police and the district attorney, and raises serious concerns about whether or not a rape even occurred." I will not rehash the evidence here, but please have a look at the story if you have not yet seen it.

We still don't know how this case will play out. Last night's piece suggested that there are major holes in the case against the students, but District Attorney Mike Nifong did not sit for an interview to present his side of the story. Still, there seems to be a strong possibility that the three students – two of whom had their mug shots appear on the cover of Newsweek under the headline "Sex, Lies & Duke" – may well be innocent of the crime they're accused of. "It's changed my life forever, no matter what happens from here on out," Collin Finnerty, one of the accused, said last night. "It's probably gonna be something that defines me my whole life."

That may not be the case had the media not identified the students. There are good reasons not to identify the accuser in a rape case – chief among them that people are more likely to report a rape if they don't have to deal with the social ramifications of having been a victim. But perhaps its time the media start showing some restraint when it comes to how it treats not just the accuser but the accused. Let's assume that the Duke students are innocent. As Finnerty suggests, their lives will be defined by the accusation regardless. Some people will likely always believe them to be rapists regardless of the facts. That's a horrible reality to have to face.

There are, to be fair, limits to what journalists can do in a case like this. In the Internet age, it can be impossible for the media to control information. The name of the accuser in the Duke case, whom the media has taken care not to identify, can be easily found on the Web – she even has a wikipedia page. Once the students were indicted, their identities and the charges against them became public record. Anyone who wanted to find out who they are could do so easily.

But did their faces have to be plastered on newsstands across America? Did the allegations against them need to be repeated ad nauseum before anyone had a real sense of whether or not they are true? The coverage of the case has often been irresponsible and sensationalistic, even at ostensibly responsible and sober media outlets. Journalists spend a lot of time lecturing bloggers about responsibility, but the mainstream media did far more damage to the Duke students than bloggers ever could. If traditional media outlets want to claim the mantle of legitimacy, they need to approach stories like this responsibly, particularly in light of the potential ramifications for those involved.

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