Learning from our mistakes

We’ve received a great deal of criticism of our Newslines story last week, “Innocence lost,” about two recent sexual-assault cases involving teenagers. After reviewing the story, we have to agree that it contains flaws that merit criticism.

In what was perhaps an overreaching effort to find answers as to how and why sexual assaults happen to young people, we included two such cases in the same story that, as admitted in the article, had “little to do with each other.”

Though well-intentioned, the approach allowed ambiguities to creep into the story. We failed to report that, at the party during which a 16-year-old Pleasant Valley High School student allegedly was sexually assaulted, most in attendance were thought to have been drinking that night. Our story made it appear that only the victim was drinking heavily. The information on other party-goers was included in an earlier draft but was cut for reasons now lost. The omission constitutes a factual error and thus violates a cardinal rule of journalism.

Also, as some have pointed out, we did not report in equal detail the actions of the accused prior to their alleged assault. This was in part because investigators provided no details, but also because we failed to ask. Again, we have no excuse other than our rush to get the paper out.

The fact that these errors, ambiguities and gaps in information were allowed through the editorial process does not mean that a bias exists at this paper. We in no way intended to blame the victim. We simply thought it important to report the context of the assault—that it did not happen in a vacuum, that there were, in our opinion, relevant factors leading up to the incident. However, especially in stories of this magnitude, there is no margin or excuse for error.

Reporting rapes is a tricky business, especially for a newsweekly that does not cover crime on a regular basis. When we do decide to cover a rape or sexual assault, we must ask ourselves certain questions: How much detail do we include and why? At what point do we run the risk of appearing gratuitous for the sake of selling papers? When do we appear to be laying blame in what should be neutral reporting?

The magnitude of emotion surrounding the media coverage of the assaults, particularly the assault on the 16-year-old PV student, is telling in itself. We have witnessed and felt the anger, outrage, guilt, shock and sadness during the week since the story was published. Media coverage was intense, especially in the Chico Enterprise-Record, which made the story high profile and, perhaps unconsciously, constructed its initial account to make District Attorney Mike Ramsey look astonishingly insensitive.

In the end, everybody is a loser in this matter—the victim, the accused, the school, the district attorney and the media. We must look for the lessons in this whole sordid affair. Otherwise, we will have failed in our responsibilities to the community.

What we do know is that no matter the circumstance, sexual assault is wrong and the guilty must be punished. We can have no ambiguity about that.