This is the way things usually work: Someone reports an incident to police, and the newspaper reports on the investigation. Other articles may follow weeks or months later as the case wends its way through the court system.
That’s not what happened with the case of Michael Dixon Jr., the suspended and recently former Missouri basketball player who was accused of rape – twice — but not prosecuted.
That and other twists in the unfolding story the past week left the Missourian newsroom grappling with several decision points. Among them:
How much is enough? Or too much?
Police reports of the 2010 and 2012 incidents describe the events in graphic detail. The initial Missourian article Tuesday evening only said that Dixon was accused of sexual assault. A copy of the police report was added online Wednesday morning.
At the regular morning meeting, several staff members asserted that there should have been more in the article: A violent crime was alleged, and we needed to shed more light on the nature of it.
After all, we wouldn’t say someone was accused of manslaughter or other assault and leave it at that, especially when that someone was a celebrity in town. However, the case was closed: A Boone County assistant prosecutor said there wasn’t enough evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
So there was a report about a crime, which is hardly unusual in journalism, at the same time as a report about what the prosecutor determined, which is.
On the other hand, it was clear that the case had not yet worked its way through the MU disciplinary process. There, the standard is lower – a “preponderance of guilt” – than the legal bar at the prosecutor’s office.
The decision: Go with the details. Wednesday evening’s article contained insights into MU’s process and obligations. The piece also included the victim’s account in graphic detail. You can read them if you’d like, but I’ll leave it here to simply say those details justified a rating stronger than PG.
In hindsight, I wish we would have used more detail in the first account and less in the second. Keeping with the comparison of a murder, a newspaper often leaves out a few of the more gory details. I’m glad, though, that the original police report was provided. I think we as readers can decide for ourselves whether to go into primary source material.
What’s the news: a second rape allegation or the departure of a basketball player?
Three big developments occurred Thursday within a four-hour period. A little before 5 p.m., the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported a second rape allegation, this one from 2010. The Missourian obtained the police report by 6 p.m, and a reporter was assigned to begin writing an article based on it.
That report could have been published, but Missourian reporters also were on to another development: a text message, purportedly from Dixon, that said: “I’m done here”
The first task was to verify the message. Had it in fact come from Dixon? About an hour later, reporters confirmed the source and that it meant he was leaving MU. The recipient of the text requested anonymity, something that is the exception, not the rule, at the Missourian. In this case I agreed to allow it. (More decision points: Anonymous, too, was the name of the woman from the 2010 incident and that of a source who worked in the athletics department then. In the first case, the Missourian doesn’t publish the names of rape victims; in the second, the source feared reprisals if identified.)
There wasn’t much debate about what to lead with in the article. Dixon’s departure was new; the second allegation wasn’t. At 7:47 pm, the Missourian went with this lead: “In a text message sent Thursday afternoon, senior Missouri basketball guard Michael Dixon Jr. revealed that he is no longer with the basketball team.”
The third development came about 9 p.m. when a member of the MU athletics department released an official announcement. The article was then “topped” with that new information.
The news of the second rape allegation began in the seventh paragraph. There was criticism Friday morning that the article gave Dixon’s words too much prominence, and that in doing so it sent the message that the woman’s allegation had less weight.
After a lot of thought, I’m still OK with the arrangement of the article. Dixon’s 48-word text comprises the only actual response to any of the allegations, which went on in great detail in the Missourian and around the country. (I’m not including the official quote, which sounds like it came straight from the PR department, not a college student.) Assuming he leaves MU and not just the team, the university disciplinary process ends as well.
This isn’t an ending, though, for the young women who stepped up or the basketball player who stepped away. There are questions to be asked of university officials and law enforcement. There are lessons to be learned, here, for all of us.