When the charges against the lacrosse team at Duke University were first laid the BBC covered it in this article by Daniel Lak.
The article correctly takes no explicit view about the truth or otherwise of the charge, as at that time investigations were still proceeding. A great deal of the article, in fact, is not about the details of the particular case at all. Rather it is “framing” – all about the race, gender and class issues that make it a big story. Fair enough. I hate to say this, but no broadcaster could cover all of the rape trials that take place in the world. The reason this one resonated was the contrast between the rich white frat boys and the poor black stripper, an unmarried mother. This wider interest is why we had the digressions into the history of North Carolina and into the current position of blacks in America.
In some relatively small ways the article was not quite as impartial as it should have been. For instance in this excerpt:
Civil rights activists, African studies professors, feminists, black community leaders and a lot of the stalwarts of the left that you find on any American campus have all lined up behind the victim and her claims.
Lacrosse team members and their parents, athletes past and present and various right-wing commentators in the US media hint darkly that the woman was either lying or had been assaulted before she came to the party.
-there should have been an “alleged” before the word “victim” and the picture of the stalwarts of the left lining up behind a victim is more positive than the “dark hints” ascribed to the right wing commentators. Still, the article does cite both white frat boys and black strippers as being the targets of “easy vilification.”
Now let’s move on to the account of the dropping of all charges against the Duke lacrosse players. (Hat tip: Terry Johnson) I thought more highly of this article than Mr Johnson did. It does make pretty clear that these men were innocent, unlike the pathetic grasping at straws (“We’ll never know what really happened that night”) I came across in some feminist websites. The facts are all there.
But it’s an unframed picture. There is little or nothing about the wider context that makes it a big story. The blogs and the media had as much to say about such issues as political correctness having overridden the presumption of innocence than they did about the individuals concerned. But with the BBC story, in contrast to the earlier one, it’s “just the facts ma’am, just the facts.” We hear that Nifong, the prosecutor, may be charged with witholding evidence – but not a word about why he seemed so madly determined to pursue the case long after the weaknesses in it had been exposed. (Winning an election and maximising his pension have been suggested.) Or why so much of the Duke academic community instantly assumed that their own students were guilty and went into candlelit vigil mode.
Justin Webb is quoted as saying “the charges had outraged many Americans, reminding them of the treatment of black people by privileged whites in years gone by.” I could not tell whether he meant that many Americans were shocked by what they believed to be a crime by arrogant white men against a poor black woman, reminding them of the way that white men could once rape black women with impunity – or whether he meant that many Americans saw the way that large sections of the university faculty and media acted as if the accused were already proven guilty by reason of race alone as reminiscent of the lynch law of the past but with the races reversed.
Neither of the two BBC articles I have cited has much wrong with it individually. Nor should the writer of either be specifically criticised in relation to the other – they were written quite separately.
My point is that the BBC has a strong but unconscious tendency to provide a frame for pictures upon which it wants the eye to linger and to dispense with a frame for pictures it finds unattractive.