Ordinary journalistic standards still prove elusive in CU story

by David Kopel

Rocky Mountain News. April 10, 2004

On March 30, Janine D'Anniballe, executive director of Moving to End Sexual Assault (MESA), testified to the University of Colorado investigative commission. She said that two women have called her rape crisis center this year, saying they were sexually assaulted by CU football players. As the first sentence of the Rocky Mountain News story reporting this testimony explained, D'Anniballe "provided no details." According to the fifth paragraph of the News story ("More rape claims," March 31), "D'Anniballe said that she had not verified that the alleged assailants were members of the football team."

There's no dispute that D'Anniballe and her organization have performed important work in Boulder. Nor is there any reason to suspect D'Anniballe of anti-male animus; to the contrary, her organization is a pioneer among rape crisis groups in employing male volunteers and staff.

Nevertheless, newspapers normally shy away from reporting hearsay. Accordingly, the News would have done better not to publicize D'Anniballe's testimony, just as the News often chooses not to report the testimony of many people who testify before various commissions. The News did, at least, provide the relevant caveats early in the story.

In contrast, The Denver Post, did not mention D'Anniballe's refusal to provide any details until the sixth paragraph.

The Boulder Daily Camera likewise waited until the sixth paragraph to let readers know that D'Anniballe offered no details. Like the News but unlike the Post, the Camera told readers that D'Anniballe "did not confirm the alleged offenders were current or former players."

I saw three local television reports on D'Anniballe's testimony. Of these, News 4 at 5 p.m. on March 30 was the worst, sensationalizing the unsubstantiated testimony into a long lead story. KWGN-Channel 2 (at 9 p.m.) and Denver's 7 (at 10 p.m.), showed better judgment - running a shorter story later in the newscast.

The News, Post and Camera all played the story prominently, giving excessive attention to a story with so little verifiable news.

The newspapers and television media were indefensibly weak on D'Anniballe's refusal to supply details. After she was criticized by Camera sports columnist Neal Woelk, D'Anniballe fired back with an Op-Ed (April 4), claiming that "In my role as the executive director of MESA and as a psychologist, I am legally and ethically obligated to protect the confidentiality of my clients and the information they share . . . To give any additional details would be illegal, not to mention a violation of the trust and confidentiality of MESA's clients."

The relevant law is Colorado Revised Statute 12-43-218, which states that a psychologist "shall not disclose, without the consent of the client, any confidential communications made by the client, or advice given thereon, in the course of professional employment." But D'Anniballe did selectively disclose such information - namely the approximate dates of two sexual assaults, and the organization to which the alleged assailants belonged. She further disclosed intimate details about the crimes, explaining that they involved "sexual assault" (unwanted touching) rather than rape (sexual penetration).

By a strict reading of the statute, D'Anniballe was illegally supplying confidential information. If D'Anniballe prefers a looser, nonliteral reading of the statute, then her failure to supply at least a few additional facts is hard to justify.

In the Camera, D'Anniballe wrote, "My role is not to corroborate the stories of our callers. . . . If a reporter does not believe that two additional rapes by CU players have occurred, he is not compelled to print that information. Verifying information and sources is his responsibility, not mine."

D'Anniballe here was setting up a straw man; the question is not whether a reporter affirmatively concludes that there were no sexual assaults. It is impossible for a reporter or a reader to conclude one way or another, based only on hearsay allegations. Instead, D'Anniballe put the media in the same position as CU commission member Luis Rovira, a former Colorado Supreme Court Justice. As the AP quoted Rovira, "I have no reason to believe her and no reason to acknowledge it's incorrect." Thus, "I just don't know."

D'Anniballe is correct that "verifying information and sources" is a reporter's responsibility. This is true even when the person offering the hearsay is, like D'Anniballe, a respected community leader about whom there is no reason to suspect dishonesty. However honest D'Anniballe is, there is no way of checking the honesty of the people whose claims she was repeating - and D'Anniballe has made it clear that she does not do such checking herself. That the media not only reported the hearsay but amplified it into a major story is one more example of how the media are failing to adhere to ordinary standards in covering the CU story.

 

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