Above the fold, under the eyes of the Yale student body, the Yale Daily News offered the following headline Aug. 31: “Student faces rape charge.” The following day, readers’ responses to the issue took up more space in the paper’s pages than had the original article. Perhaps more surprisingly, some readers appeared just as, if not more, stirred up by the coverage of the story than by the story itself.
“When you print the name of a student accused of sexual assault, include his picture, place him on the front page, and have a pull quote describing his large bail amount, there is an implication of guilt associated with the accused that you spread to the entire student body, one which can not be taken back,” wrote Zac Soto ’06 in one of two letters to the editor expressing distress about the News’ coverage. “While I respect the right of every student to report a sexual assault, it must be considered that the publication of such reports, which include details about the accused can, in many ways, act as a social presumption of guilt.”
Above Soto’s letter, a column by Loren Krywancyk ’06 praised the story. “I was glad to see the Aug. 31 article about rape charges against a Yale student on the front page, as an arrest regarding such serious allegations certainly merits publicity,” he wrote. “Of course, I have no knowledge as to whether or not the accused is guilty. But regardless of the outcome of this case, it’s important that when arrests of this kind occur, we don’t shy away from talking about them.”
These readers’ responses raise critical issues not only about how to cover rape charges, but about journalism itself. The News got flak simply for telling it like it was: someone had alleged rape charges against a Yale student, and that student — we learn from the slightly smaller type below the headline — will plead not guilty. The first quotation in the article comes from the student’s lawyer: “Allegations are easily made, especially in cases of this nature,” the article quotes him as saying. “Experience has taught people who are familiar with the judicial process that these cases are easily alleged but difficult to prove.”
Yet, as Soto wrote, telling it like it is can blur with suggesting interpretations that are not true. How should campus publications convey facts and honor the readers’ right to know without creating a “social presumption of guilt”? His letter pinpoints the YDN’s decision to print the student’s name, display a picture and place the article on the front page as potentially misleading. Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg echoed these concerns. “I think it’s reprehensible to identify somebody and to put a photograph in the newspaper,” she is quoted as saying in the Sept. 9 issue of the Yale Herald.
What reactions would the News’ coverage of the charges have stirred had the story appeared below the fold? Without a picture? Within the pages of the paper? Perhaps some readers would have urged more prominent coverage; others would have applauded the News’ discretion; and still others would have thought even that amount of coverage to be too much.
This last group of readers fears the social presumption of guilt, and we might wonder why such presumption occurs. Quick reading is one explanation; some readers could skim through a piece, latching onto the most important words — “rape,” “trial,” bail” — and swiftly “brand” Korb guilty. Indeed, Korb could be branded for all time; someone who quickly reads the story in the future might find the story and use it against him.
Yet even careful readers might presume a measure of guilt. Understanding that Korb is innocent until proven otherwise, they might wonder just why these charges arose. The few facts we have admit the reader into a world of unsubstantiated possibility. Because of the nature of the accusation, we will never get all the facts; and even if Korb is cleared, questions about his character might haunt the minds of those who see him around campus.
Is it possible for journalism to convey truth without inviting unsubstantiated concerns?
We must demand as much thought and discretion of ourselves as readers as we do from the News staff as reporters. And in asking these questions, we are surely all on the same page.
(Deutsch’s opinions are her own. Her views do not represent those of the Yale Daily News’ editorial board.)