Some reporters make mistakes that aren’t very innocent. Others distort the information they’ve gathered to push agendas. But rarely do those who engage in such malpractice suffer any public embarrassment — and it’s rarer still that their employers face any monetary setback for publishing those errors.
But that actually happened in October, when a jury awarded former State Bureau of Investigation forensic analyst Beth Desmond $1.5 million in compensatory damages and $7.5 million in punitive damages in a libel lawsuit against the Raleigh News & Observer and reporter Mandy Locke. Desmond said the newspaper defamed her in a 2010 investigative series about the State Crime Lab’s handling of evidence in Pitt County murder case.
As Carolina Journal reported, the judge’s handling of the lawsuit is unusual, as he did not let jurors review much of the evidence the paper wanted to present that jurors typically would see in a libel case. It’s quite possible that the case will be heard again after an appeal.
But no matter what you think about the legal merits of Desmond’s lawsuit, the N&O could have avoided the conflict entirely if Locke or her superiors had used better professional judgment in their reporting of the murder investigation — or if the newspaper had admitted the 2010 series included errors after it was published.
In the series, Locke reported that several independent forensics experts doubted whether Desmond understood how to analyze evidence taken at the scene of a shooting. And, as the N&O reported in an Oct. 19 story about the jury awards, Locke said “some [of the experts] suspected [Desmond] fabricated evidence to help Pitt County prosecutors win a murder conviction.”
There’s one problem: None of the experts Locke interviewed made those connections to Desmond. Locke posed the questions to the experts as hypothetical situations, and then for her stories attached their responses to Desmond’s work on this case.
After the series ran, several of Locke’s sources contacted the newspaper, saying they were misquoted or taken out of context. Four of them testified they were disturbed that their generic comments had been used to disparage the professionalism of an SBI agent.
The newspaper never published a correction or an apology. And a jury held it and Locke accountable.
We don’t know how Locke’s flawed reporting got past her editors; perhaps she never admitted to them that she connected general statements to specific situations in a false or misleading way.
But once newspaper editors were aware of the errors in her reporting and their stories, they did nothing to acknowledge the mistakes.
If you wonder why the public’s trust in the media is reaching all-time lows, self-inflicted wounds like this can explain a lot.
Rick Henderson is editor-in-chief of Carolina Journal.