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Bernie Fine Case Raises Questions About How Journalists Report On Sex Abuse Allegations

By Mallary Jean Tenore (Poynter)
November 29, 2011

When Bobby Davis first told the Post-Standard and ESPN that Syracuse University assistant men's basketball coach Bernie Fine had sexually abused him, neither news organization published a story about it.

Now, in the wake of more allegations that led to Fine's firing on Sunday, the Post-Standard and ESPN are letting readers know why.

The news organizations' decisions raise important questions about how journalists handle sex abuse allegations — and the factors they should consider when deciding whether to publish stories about them.

Some have criticized both news organizations for "failing to respond" and for not helping a victim get justice. But the Post-Standard and ESPN say they didn't think they had sufficient evidence to move forward.

Post-Standard's Executive Editor Mike Connor told me he's not answering questions from the press, but referred me to a column he wrote last week explaining why the paper didn't write about Davis' initial allegation. In it, he explains that an investigative reporter and sports reporter spent nearly six months looking into Davis' allegations and interviewed him several times. The paper decided early on that it wouldn't confront Fine unless it had enough to publish.

"To have enough to publish, we needed substantial corroboration of Davis's account or another accuser," Connor wrote. "Unlike the case in Penn State, there was no grand jury hearing evidence, no law enforcement investigation of any kind going on that we could determine, no criminal charges about to be leveled. We were on our own. Whatever we published would be outside the realm of officialdom. We had to get it right in every way."

"We were on our own"

Because the Post-Standard was "on its own," the standards were higher. The paper's reputation would have been damaged if the allegations turned out to be false. If there had been a police investigation, or if Davis had filed a lawsuit against the accuser, it could have been easier to substantiate the allegations.

Ted Gest, president of Criminal Justice Journalists, said he thinks journalists are more likely to publish stories about allegations if there are multiple accusers and if police have looked into the accusations. These two factors lend legitimacy, he said, and they can save journalists from having to do all the investigating themselves.

"If I were working at a daily newspaper today and I heard these allegations, I don't know if I would do anything different from the Post-Standard," Gest said in a phone interview. "Journalists can't be the people responsible for investigating all cases of sex abuse in our area. We just don't have the resources."

Gest pointed out that while police investigations can help, they're not necessarily sufficient.

"Suppose back in 2003, the Post-Standard had what it had, but the police department was investigating. I'm still not sure they should have done a story then, because zillions of things in life are 'investigated,' but only a small fraction of them turn out to be big stories," Gest said, noting that journalists are more likely to report on sex abuse cases involving high-profile individuals. "In my hypothetical, they'd probably have to know more than just the bare bones of an investigation, i.e., that the police were actually finding more than the newspaper had found."

The importance of multiple accusers

In a Q&A about its coverage, ESPN's Vince Doria spoke to the importance of multiple accusers and the police's involvement with the case. ESPN looked into Davis' allegations in 2002 but, like the Post-Standard, didn't think it had enough evidence until recently.

"For the first time we had a second alleged victim come forward to talk on the record about what he claimed had happened between he and Bernie Fine," wrote Doria, ESPN's senior vice president & director of news. "Along with that, we had a source who indicated to us that the Syracuse Police and the University Police were discussing re-opening this investigation."

He said ESPN was aware in 2002 that Davis had shared his allegations with Syracuse Police, who told him that the statue of limitations had expired.

But just because police decide not to investigate an allegation doesn't mean it's false or that there's not a story there.

Why police don't investigate

Police have come under scrutiny in some cities for mishandling sex abuse allegations. Last year, the Baltimore Sun's Justin Fenton reported that half of Baltimore's discarded rape claims were misclassified. Similarly, St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Jeremy Kohler reported in 2005 that St. Louis police had a history of not responding adequately to rape complaints.

"It seemed that they were shelving the cases because the credibility of the victim was not, in their estimation, very high," Kohler said by phone. "A lot of the victims were prostitutes or people they knew who had drug records, and some of them frankly had stories that were hard to believe, or there may have been an element where they were not telling the truth, so police weren't really sure that they were crimes."

When covering allegations of sexual abuse that have been brought to the attention of police, Kohler said, journalists should ask police if they've investigated the allegations. If they haven't, journalists should try to find out why.

How much skepticism is appropriate?

It's part of our nature as journalists to question allegations and be skeptical. The challenge, then, is deciding when to turn that skepticism into a pursuit of truth and evidence. Even when we think we have enough evidence to publish a story, our audience might not be convinced. (When Politico first reported on allegations that Herman Cain sexually harassed two women, for instance, Reuters' Jack Shafer criticized the news site for wrapping "the allegations in journalistic gauze that frays and dissolves as you unwind it.")

Deciding whether and when to publish

Here are some questions that can help you decide whether to report on — and ultimately publish — a story that's based on an allegation.

  • Can you verify the accuser's attempts to pursue justice?
  • What type of support system does the accuser have (family, counselors, friends)? Can you interview any of them, if not on the record, then at least to confirm the portions of the story they can confirm?
  • How can you corroborate that the accuser and the accused were in the same place when the alleged abuse occurred?
  • Does the accuser have a lawyer? What role is the lawyer playing in your interaction with the accuser?
  • What background records can you gather on the accused? (Statistics show that rapists are more likely to be a serial criminal than a serial rapist. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, "46% of rapists who were released from prison were re-arrested within three years of their release for another crime.")
  • Given the gravity of accusing someone of sexual abuse, what steps can you take to give the accused a chance to address the allegations?
  • What is the threshold for publishing an allegation of sexual abuse? Do you need corroborating evidence such as a note or photo? A witness or second accuser?
  • Have police investigated the case? If so, what can they share? If not, why?
  • The latter questions can lead to another angle: What systems are failing? Did the accuser turn to the media rather than another form of justice? Can you document that failure?
  • What's the potential harm to the accuser and the accused if you were to publish a story?
Asking ourselves these questions can help us determine whether we have enough evidence to move forward with a story. And being transparent about the reporting process can give our audience a better understanding of the decision we made — while showing that these types of decisions are never easy.

As ESPN's Doria wrote: "All journalists could be asking themselves this very same question: What role should journalists play in providing information that may or may not have been reported? It's complex and something we must continue to evaluate."