TCU drug busts: Anatomy of an editor’s decision-making

In the wake of this week’s drug busts at TCU, the institutions involved are getting a lot of scrutiny, and that’s good. Did TCU blow things out of proportion? Were the Fort Worth police more interested in headlines than justice? Was the media irresponsible?

I’ll leave the answers to the first two questions to the experts and our columnists. As for “the media,” I can speak only to the actions of my newsroom.

This post is definitely not the official position of the Star-Telegram; it’s just my opinion. But I was the editor supervising the initial coverage, so I’ll answer for the decisions we made.

I’ve read the stories, columns and comments over the past four days, and I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on our coverage. I’ve come to two conclusions:

1. I wish we had done a better of job of emphasizing the relatively small-time drug-dealing outlined in the arrest warrant affidavits. The comments of TCU and Fort Worth police at the morning news conference seemed to describe something more sinister than the affidavits actually contained. We needed a headline to that effect as part of our first-day coverage.

2. Aside, from that, I think our coverage on the whole was comprehensive and fair. Whatever your stance on drugs, or TCU, or police, this was a big story in Fort Worth.

We have written on the university’s crisis response, the scope of the allegations, the football team’s involvement and the police’s identification of the wrong man.

Our editorial board has encouraged the university to be more forthcoming about allegations of drug use by football players. Randy Galloway gives TCU props for not trying to cover things up. Columnist Bud Kennedy has become a high-profile skeptic of the entire communications effort.

In today’s media world, that kind of depth and reasoned analysis is too often missing from coverage of events, and I’m proud of our newsroom for taking the time to provide it.

Having said all that, here are four things that affected my decision-making, particularly as the story was breaking, for better or worse:

1. Default position = Publish.

Thanks to the Internet, people have access to everything — and that’s a positive development. The “old media’s” role as gatekeeper is long gone. If police release names, photos and court documents from a drug sting, you can bet they will be all over the world in a matter of minutes, no matter what a single media entity decides to do. Again, that’s a good thing. People can examine all the data and make up their own minds.

Some have questioned, specifically, whether we should have published the photographs of those arrested. It’s not clear that doing so caused any further harm to their reputations than the release of their names and the arrest warrant affidavits, but it’s a fair question. In the end, I believe that people want to see the faces of those accused, and anytime we have photos, we publish them, unless extraordinary circumstances are involved.

2. Unusual transparency set the initial tone: This was big

TCU’s early-morning news conference, attended by university and city police, was, frankly, shocking. Neither TCU nor the Fort Worth police have a reputation for openness. The fact that they elected to call a news conference led us to believe from the outset that this was a huge story, and we shifted into high gear. Should I have been more skeptical? Maybe. But, in general, our goal as a story is breaking is to tell people immediately what’s happening, not to analyze.

Chancellor Victor Boschini Jr. started things off by saying: “Today’s events have changed the life of everybody at TCU.” From there, TCU Chief Steven McGee said, “There is no doubt, all those arrested today are drug dealers.” McGee listed the drugs that were allegedly sold to undercover officers: Acid, Ecstasy, marijuana, cocaine, several kinds of prescription drugs. Fort Worth police described the deals as “hand-to-hand transactions on campus,” including in dorm rooms. Police said there could be more arrests.

From our Twitter feed during the news conference:

Yes, it took us awhile to understand that the affidavits — which weren’t released until an hour after the news conference — didn’t exactly paint a picture of a drug cartel. Unfortunately, by then, police and TCU had stopped answering questions. Still, it was at this point, along about Wednesday afternoon, that I wish we would have stepped back and written the story of affidavits that didn’t seem to match the tone of the presser. For example, the only “acid” mentioned in the affidavits turned out to be fake.

3. The sworn affidavits were explosive

Setting aside the specifics of the drugs exchanged, statements in the affidavits were stunning. Football players telling undercover officers that dozens of their teammates had failed a drug test. Drug deals going down on Bellaire Drive South and at oft-visited public locations: Kroger, a Shell station, Hooter’s, near the intramural fields. A surprise drug test on National Signing Day. A football player asking for mushrooms. Like it or not, TCU is held up as a paragon of virtue. The details — in sworn, public court documents — of what allegedly went down were out of character with the carefully cultivated public image. All of that influenced our assessment of how big this story was to Fort Worth.

A word about the wrong man being accused. Police did not confirm it was true until late in the evening Wednesday, after names, photos and affidavits had already been published. When they did, we immediately pulled the name, photo and affidavit off our website and posted an interview with the young man.

4. Transparency only went so far

There may be more to this story; there may be less. The affidavits are only part of the information we had. Officials whom we believed to be credible told everyone that this was a big deal, that drug dealers were off the street, that a smorgasbord of drugs had been sold, that more arrests might be imminent.

Although the documents didn’t necessarily paint such a dark picture, we were unable to get clarification because once they were released, everyone involved was finished talking. Getting answers to some of our questions — specifically, is what’s outlined in the affidavits all there is? — might have changed our decisions.

But, as I said, I still think, all in all, our coverage was proper and complete. We’ll continue to examine our actions as the story evolves, though, because we need to hold ourselves just as accountable as we hold other institutions.

I welcome your feedback in the comments.

— Kathy Vetter

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One thought on “TCU drug busts: Anatomy of an editor’s decision-making

  1. My only complaint was printing the self-serving everybody’s screwed on the team numbers. 60 to 80 playrts is a far cry from five….4 of whom were likely arrested. This is what blew up media coverage –that and 1/2 ounce of weed. Come on.

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