Between the Lines: November-December 2007

November 30, 2007

 

For well over twenty years, Duke Magazine has taken on tough issues—lately, the lacrosse incident. In its Forum pages, the magazine has represented a range of opinions, including opinions that are harshly critical of administration actions.

Every publication wrestles with allocating limited space. The lacrosse incident sparked an unprecedented level of communication to university officials, some of it directed to the magazine. As a result, we made some unprecedented decisions about our handling of letters.

In the spring of 2006, we received two thoughtful letters from parents of Duke lacrosse players. Both letters greatly exceeded the maximum length for the Forum section. We worked with the writers to trim the letters for print, but also took the exceptional step of publishing the letters in their entirety on the Web.

Then, for the September-October 2007 Forum, which included responses to our second major lacrosse story, we made the decision to post some letters online exclusively. We have received questions about the lag time between receipt of the letters and their publication, as well as the choice of letters offered online and not in print—specifically, a letter from Jay Bilas '86, J.D. '91.

As a bimonthly publication, Duke Magazine has a long production cycle. Editing and typesetting begin months in advance of printing. It's unavoidable that responses to one issue won't appear for a couple of issues.

Editorial judgments are behind every element of the publication, large and small. In this case, there's cause to second-guess the decision to exclude the Bilas letter from the printed Forum. Bilas has had a relationship with the magazine since his student days (as a star player, he kept a basketball journal for the magazine), he was a key voice in the magazine's first lacrosse feature, and he was a panelist in a magazine-sponsored program that scrutinized the media's performance in the lacrosse case. He is recognizable to, and respected by, a wide swath of the alumni body. On the other hand, the letter can be seen as engaging only minimally with the magazine's lacrosse coverage and as repeating a string of complaints against Duke's leadership that, issue after issue, have been aired in the magazine (and elsewhere). Not surprisingly, the letter—available at www.dukemagazine.duke.edu—has received plenty of attention.

The flap over the Bilas letter has inspired a rethinking of our procedure for publishing letters. We will continue to include in the magazine's print version letters that represent a cross-section of opinions received. The letters most likely to appear in print will meet the basic test of referring to magazine content or offering a genuinely fresh perspective on an issue of interest to a Duke readership. But, beginning with the January-February issue, we will also regularly post online additional letters that supplement the printed content.

Duke Magazine's editorial independence is a sign of institutional self-confidence, and a recognition that credibility is vital in building bonds of trust between the campus and its constituencies. The lacrosse incident has been challenging for us as we've worked to give context to a story that has cried out for context. We undoubtedly have made mistakes of commission and (as perhaps with Bilas) omission. But we think we've gotten it right overall, taking seriously not just our institutional knowledge but our journalistic responsibility as well.