After six years at the Phoenix, I recently got my first pre-emptive libel threat. It came, most unexpectedly, from an investigative reporter. And beyond the fact that this struck me as a blatant attempt at intimidation, it demonstrated how tricky journalism's new, collaboration-driven future could be.
But first, a bit of background. On February 25, the Boston Globe published a front-page story on the collective failure — by 10 local colleges and universities — to seriously sanction students who have been accused of on-campus sexual assaults. The piece, however, was based on new data from a voluntary US Department of Justice program in which participating schools can obtain grant money for working to improve their response to alleged sexual assaults. It was written — with assistance from the Washington, DC–based Center for Public Integrity — by Maggie Mulvihill and Joe Bergantino, two veteran Boston reporters who now head up the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR), which is based at Boston University (BU). The piece offered no data whatsoever on sexual assaults at BU.
In a statement that was provided to the Phoenix and the Boston Herald, Bergantino offered several reasons for this omission. He said, for example, that the Globe and New England Cable News (NECN, which also broadcast a story based on NECIR's reporting) were primarily interested in the new DOJ data, and that BU did not participate in that program. He also said that focusing on this new data helped keep the story tractable. And, Bergantino added, while NECIR did have some data on sex assaults at BU, it was saving that information for a follow-up piece on nonparticipating schools that will run at an unspecified time in the Daily Free Press, BU's student paper. The Globe and NECIR's other media partners could reprint or follow up on that story when it appears, said Bergantino. (Full disclosure: El Planeta, a sister publication of the Phoenix, is one of those partners.)
But then Bergantino closed with a flourish that was so incongruous I initially missed it. To question BU's absence from the narrative, he hinted, could be grounds for a libel suit, especially if his and Mulvihill's motives were impugned. Or, as he put it: "An article that depicted our center as deliberately leaving BU out of the sexual-assault story so as to either protect the university or act as its public-relations agent would be totally inaccurate, defamatory, and display a reckless disregard of the truth."
This outburst prompted three related questions: should the original Globe piece have mentioned BU, even though it didn't participate in the DOJ program? Should asking that question really engender a libel threat? And as the news business becomes increasingly collaborative, will old standards of scrutiny and disclosure be sufficient?
Truth and friction
Let's take the middle question first. Bergantino subsequently explained, via a defiant second e-mail, that he included his statement about inaccuracy, defamation, etc., "because it's true." But Tom Fiedler, dean of BU's College of Communication, allows that another factor might have been at play.
"I really can't speak for Joe and Maggie on their choice of words," Fiedler tells the Phoenix. "But I think it probably reflected their feeling that their reputations were being questioned here."