A few years ago, I had the incredible opportunity to spend time in the sports newsroom of a sister paper to the Chicago Tribune. The columnists and writers there seemed incredibly professional, willing to consider multiple opinions.
A really splendid individual there told me that one of the most important things of a columnist’s job is to work just as hard as a beat reporter. Writing off-the-cuff opinion pieces without research and reporting does not make a good column. Post-game columns are usually the worst, in part because they are an embodiment of laziness. Another columnist there engaged me in a serious debate about the appropriate punishment for Michael Vick to ensure that he opened his eyes to opposing opinions.
Such practices, which are prevalent still today at that paper, are crucial for sports journalists to be taken seriously. And it is important because that mindset is absolutely crucial when reporting and opining on events like the death of Lizzy Seeberg.
Unfortunately, it appears that the flagship of the Tribune Company has a serious quantity of reporters who don’t share the same mentality as those at the sister paper.
Given the information published, the reporting and column pieces appear to be seriously biased. In the December 16th article on the Seeberg family’s sense of betrayal, the first paragraph reports an alleged “sexual attac[k].” It took until the 14th paragraph to describe the incident in more detail:
“[T]he campus police log listed the complaint as an alleged sexual battery. Under Indiana law, a sexual battery is the unwanted touching of another person to satisfy one’s own sexual desires.
The incident ended when the player’s cell phone distracted him, Seeberg wrote. …
She also went to a hospital, where she reported the alleged attack to authorities and consented to a DNA evidence kit.”
The reporters painted an image: A trip to the hospital. A DNA kit. A description of the complaint through the eyes of the “campus police log,” thus allowing a skeptical reader to doubt the description of battery, since the whole story is suggesting a Notre Dame cover-up.
How could the reporters assume that readers would think this was anything less than unwanted touching of the genitalia or perhaps even forced sexual activity? This was either incredible incompetency or wanton recklessness.
And yet, they almost certainly knew that even Seeberg described it as something much different. The reporters had access to Seeberg’s statement and quoted it. They also had access to the police report. If the prosecutor was able to describe the incident as an unwanted touching of the breasts on the same day the article was published, then that information almost certainly was contained in one of the documents the Tribune had access to.
There is, of course, the possibility that the Tribune’s reporters are colored by additional information that they are not releasing. That is common in reporting. The name of the football player is one thing the reporters know but are appropriately not sharing. They might also have off-the-record comments from the prosecutor or even some officials inside the school, which theoretically could be damning to the University. But that is precisely the greatest drawback to off-the-record sourcing. It can greatly color the wording and bias the reporter, and all the while the reader has no reason to understand the apparent bias.
All of that, however, does not give the reporters and columnists the privilege of twisting or under-reporting the truth. That is not journalism; it's advocacy.
Now, let me temper my words with something else.
I find it hard to believe that the University did everything correctly. In circumstances like these, it would be almost impossible to do so. Thus, if NDSP “froze” – didn’t know what to do – once Seeberg committed suicide, the University should admit that. Perhaps the delays are understandable. I hope the University remembers to analyze itself in hindsight and be unafraid to admit where it erred. Notre Dame officials certainly feel great institutional pressure to claim to be in the right because the school is essentially being accused of crimes of moral outrage. Still, it is more important that the University stay true to its values and always be willing to admit what mistakes were made, how serious they were, and how they will correct them.
But then, again, we reach the other problem: On the salient issues, the University very well might be in the right. Let me begin empirically.
There are certain circumstances when a third party tries desperately to protect the legacy or reputation a victim who may have contributed to his own horrors. A few years ago, a college-aged kid went missing after being out one night. It turned out that he drove off an embankment, landed in the woods, was stuck in his car, and didn’t get rescued until three or four days later. After being pressed by some reporters who wanted to know if alcohol was involved, the police spokesman simply said that there was no need to even consider it. The young man had a one-car accident and is partially paralyzed. He didn’t hurt anyone else. Let’s leave be anything like that.
None of us know exactly how Seeberg presented herself that day to NDSP, but we can all admit that there are at least plausible reasons why we might have been less-than-aggressive in investigating the claim, if we were in the shoes of an NDSP officer. That doesn’t necessarily make the reaction right, but it should temper anyone’s moral outrage.
In her statement this week, Janet Botz, Notre Dame’s Vice President in the Office of Public Affairs and Communications, said the following: “We also recognize that when a family is grieving for a lost child, procedures that are thorough and careful may be perceived as insufficient.” To me, that appears to be a very cautious and respectful way of saying, “Sometimes, we have to look like the bad person because we have no intention of doing or saying anything that would seem to criticize the lost loved one of a grieving family. But, we are asking you not to jump to conclusions.”
Likewise, imagine you are NDSP, and you have a claim of unwanted touching of the breasts. The victim’s account didn’t make the suspect seem violent or particularly aggressive. And, for some reason, you have not felt the case merited speedy consideration. You go to the suspect’s room on Sept. 9, but he’s not there. (By the way: It’s a football player, in season. That excuse is weak: Go to the Gug and find out where he is.)
Nonetheless, about 24 hours later, you find out that the accuser has committed suicide. If I were an involved officer, I could see myself getting absolutely panicked. I’d also be wondering if the alleged player somehow got in contact with Seeberg after receiving the voicemail. I might consider re-interviewing other people. I would probably re-group and plan a strategy according to protocol. I could probably think of dozens of new things that we'd now need to do.
All this goes to show that there are so many unanswered questions. Some are unanswered because Notre Dame is not talking about this. Others are unanswered because the reporters, quite frankly, have not done their work. Below are the suggestions I made – weeks ago – for questions reporters should seek. Most of these have not been addressed.
1. What is NDSP's standard operating procedure for deciding whether to report sexual assault cases to county police?
2. What are the standard operating procedures at other university police departments?
3. Ask experts what should be a campus police department’s standard operating procedure for sexual assault cases. Should such departments turn over all documents on sexual assault allegations to immediately? Are there reasons a department would decide not to report it?
4. Does NDSP have a SOP in place for a post-report suicide?
5. Do other university police departments have a SOP in place for such an tragedy?
6. Did Notre Dame consult with other university police departments in the wake of the suicide?
7. Do experts think Notre Dame have consulted with other university police departments in the wake of the suicide? Would there be reasons not to?
8. Do experts think NDSP should have turned over all case files and documents to county investigators? If so, when should NDSP have done that?
9. Was there discussion or debate about turning over the investigation externally or internally? What were the underlying reasons behind the decision?
10. In retrospect, does the University think it should have turned over the investigation immediately or right after the suicide to county police?
I encourage all of us to do what the Tribune is not: carefully analyze the ways Notre Dame may have acted correctly, and the ways it may have erred. The proper response to this bias isn’t a stubborn defense of everything Notre Dame did. The opposite of blind hate isn’t blind support: It’s reason. Let’s encourage all of us to use reason.