Durham article lacked context

When unified criticism of Tuesday’s article “Durham crime crosses over” began flowing in, I felt blindsided. And that, I think, is the problem.

In planning, reporting and editing the story, we simply had no idea what we were getting into. So many online responses said the story played into the stereotype that Durham is a scary place that UNC students should avoid. This stereotype played no part in the story’s creation. And our ignorance of it has caused many readers to believe we have embraced it.

This is not an excuse. As journalists, we should have ensured that no angle was left unaddressed, especially on an issue of such importance. We didn’t do that, and that was wrong. And this wasn’t the work of one person. I and several other members of the staff oversaw its production.

Anyone hoping to make the case that we were bent on making a harmful generalization about Durham can find ammunition. The sentence pointing out that there are no fences or checkpoints between Chapel Hill and Durham is clumsy, puzzling and unnecessary. But it is not a proposal.

The juxtaposition of a focus on crime trends with the murder of Eve Carson certainly should have been executed more carefully.

These observations, taken together, led some to conclude that the article was written solely for the purpose of stereotyping an entire city. But that simply wasn’t the case.

The article was meant to take the anniversary of one of this town’s most infamous crimes as an opportunity to analyze how often crime in Chapel Hill results in the arrests of Durham residents. Some would argue the premise itself is steeped in prejudice. I disagree.

The fact that the article has elicited such a strong reaction from readers is evidence of this topic’s importance.

But it didn’t help that we left several important questions unaddressed: How much crime in Durham leads to the arrest of Chapel Hill residents? How does the relationship between the two towns compare to that of similar towns across the state and country? What are the underlying tensions of race and socioeconomic status, and how might they play into the issue?

Perhaps the article’s greatest disservice was its use of crime statistics without the proper context. The numbers mean nothing without the proper perspective.

This perspective and many other questions would have to be addressed in order to provide a balanced and complete account of the issue. But I don’t entirely discount the value of the story just because it included some confusing language and lacked important perspective.

And the fact that the article’s publication has unleashed such an outpouring of emotion only necessitates further reporting. It’s very clear the relationship between the two towns is a source of great tension, and questions remain. Regrettably, we didn’t fully appreciate that.

We will learn from the responsible and thoughtful criticism many readers have levied, and become tougher and more responsible because of it.

Thanks for reading.

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