Covering Annie Le

“One. Two. One-two-three-four.” Just after 8 p.m. on September 14, an amplified message cracked the silence of thousands of mourners gathered on Cross Campus to commemorate Annie Le MED ’13, whose body had been recovered the previous afternoon from the basement of 10 Amistad Street. Alongside the solemn addresses of Yale University President Richard Levin, University Chaplain Sharon Kugler, and Le’s roommate, Natalie Powers, emerged a parallel broadcast of “TESTING” messages, camera clicks, and the shuffling  of television crews from the loudspeakers. Undergraduate and graduate students, New Haven residents, and friends of Le—members, as Levin put it, of a “community of concern”—had come to Cross Campus to grieve and be comforted, yet the vigil itself teetered on the edge of spectacle. The next morning, images of the sea of candle-lit faces would allow millions of newspaper readers, web-surfers, and television-watchers around the world to share in the vigil. But there was one aspect of the experience, salient to all who huddled together on cross campus, that the media would not capture: its own, at times intrusive, presence.

Yet from the volume of press Le’s story received, consumers of news could imagine the media circus that New Haven hosted in the weeks following the September 8th disappearance. As city, state, and federal investigators tirelessly searched, first for Le, and then her killer, local and national news sources searched for a story. Film crews stalked press conferences, vans camped out on Amistad Street, and reporters accosted ignorant undergraduates outside Woodbridge Hall, Office of the President. Regarding the trampling of NBC producer Alycia Savyides by a throng of reporters at a New Haven Police Department briefing, Joe Avery, a spokesperson for the police, noted, “I’ve never seen a bunch of people so out of control in my entire life.”

As they had after the 1998 murder of Suzanne Jovin ‘99 and the 2003 Yale Law School Bombing, the press descended on New Haven last month for, as Editor in Chief of the Yale Daily News Thomas Kaplan put it, this “perfect storm story.” A promising young bride-to-be missing, a gruesome murder with a town-gown twist: though not a random act, it could have happened anywhere, and it happened at Yale. Le’s tragedy was simultaneously riveting, bizarre, human, and relatable—and to the press, supremely marketable. During the week of September 14, the story drew more media coverage in America (seven percent) than the swine flu, the war in Afghanistan, or missile defense. News sources, converted provocative images and words (“stuffed,” “traumatic axphixiation,” “lab tech”) into dollars: Le’s murder was “closely followed” by about a quarter of the American public, according to the Pew Research Center for the People & Press.

The marketability of Le story’s led to the media’s use of both new-age and age-old tactics of sensationalist reporting. Along with an overload of lurid headlines (CBS’s “Grisly Yale Murder ‘Freaks’ Students” on Crime Insider) came videos (ABC’s “Cold Feet or Foul Play?” on Good Morning America), online photo albums (CBS’s “Annie Le and the Love of Her Life”, again on Crime Insider), and interactive timelines (see the Hartford Courant) that blurred the line between informative and inappropriate.

In their attempt to capture the attention of audiences in the digital age, the press exploited new media at the expense of sensitivity, and devalued their integrity by engaging in the overused tactics of speculation and dissemination of misinformation.  Echoing the claims made after Jovin’s murder, rumors began circulating on Friday, three days after Le’s disappearance, that a Yale professor was the prime suspect in the case. The New York Post and New York Daily News later reported that a Yale student had failed a polygraph test in the FBI investigation. There were two premature reports of a recovered body: Sunday stories claimed that Le had been found buried in a Hartford landfill. Even when facts replaced these claims, the search for Raymond Clark III’s motive in Le’s murder bordered on amusement: Clark was angry at Le for her treatment of lab animals (Fox News); he had killed Le in a “roid rage,” a steroid-induced frenzy (The National Enquirer); the two had formerly been romantically involved. “It’s sort of frightening to see the misinformation that’s been printed as fact,” Kaplan remarks.

The Yale Daily News focused on getting the facts right. Like their professional counterparts, newspaper’s staff spent the period of uncertainty following Le’s disappearance on the medical school campus, at the police station, and on the telephone gleaning information. Their tactics—thorough investigating and conservative reporting— worked. Such methodology resulted in “CLARK CHARGED IN LE GRD ’13 MURDER” rather than the cbsnews.com headline from the same day, “Raymond Clark III and Jennifer Hromadka’s Wedding Web Site Goes Dark”.

The Yale Daily News, however, had a few advantages, manifested not only in key-card access to Yale buildings, but also in the established trust of University administrators, police, and students. Moreover, Kaplan admits that the paper was free of its professional counterparts’ need for “a blunt headline to sell newspapers.” Without the impetus to gain readership or spur local interest in the Le story, there was no economic narrative pushing dramatic excess onto the paper’s front page. The Yale Daily News could afford to avoid sensationalism, and, as the paper serving Levin’s “community of concern,” it also could not afford to stoop to speculation. While the murder might have been the national headline of the week, for the team at the Yale Daily News, says Kaplan, it was “the biggest news story in a decade.” The students rose to the challenge of the occasion. “We had an opportunity to do really outstanding work…There was a very clear obligation to handle the story with the proper level of sensitivity.” The charge not only to tell the truth, but tell it well, validated the intensity of the News’ coverage. “FEMALE BODY FOUND AT 10 AMISTAD,” while potentially lurid elsewhere, felt more relevant at Yale where the people, places and the possible threat in question hit especially close to home.

Accuracy and sensitivity legitimized the already reputable paper as a sources of news: over two million people followed the Le story on yaledailynews.com; Yale Daily News photos were sold to outside media sources; impressed readers posted appreciative comments online, and Kaplan received hundreds of requests for television interviews.

The paper not only informed the Yale community, but served as its mirror, and, by extension, its voice. But while the staff received accolades for journalistic integrity, the paper would have gained no such attention had the media not generated such fervor around the story in the first place. Interest in Raymond Clark’s personal life, statistics on “workplace violence,” and fascination with Ivy League journalists went hand in hand with the murder. Ultimately, the obsession distanced Le from her own narrative. Though Yale vigil-goers and journalists alike respected life lost, the media created a story as much as it reported one.

Image: Reuters

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