Though the advent of digital news broke down the barrier to publish for a lot of savvy watchdogs and tire kickers with blogs –not to mention loads of startups and non-profit ventures– major metro daily newspapers are still best-equipped to produce a consistent, thorough and empathetic journalism in the public interest, and as the Kansas City Star proved over the weekend, some are even doing so in longform narrative style.
The Star published a magazine-length investigative piece, 4,830 words, headlined “Nightmare in Maryville: Teens’ sexual encounter ignites firestorm against family.” Here’s a passage that quickly summarizes this tragic story:
Few dispute the basic facts of what happened in the early morning hours of Jan. 8, 2012: A high school senior had sex with Coleman’s 14-year-old daughter, another boy did the same with her daughter’s 13-year-old friend, and a third student video-recorded one of the bedding scenes. Interviews and evidence initially supported the felony and misdemeanor charges that followed.
Yet, two months later, the Nodaway County prosecutor dropped the felony cases against the youths, one the grandson of a longtime area political figure.
The story’s actually even more tragic than it sounds: Melinda Coleman found her 13-year-old daughter Daisy intoxicated and passed out on her lawn on January 8, 2012, deposited there in the freezing cold by the aforementioned group of boys hours earlier. One among them admitted to having sex with Daisy beforehand, according to a sheriff’s report, and months later the Colemans’ house mysteriously burned down. The story sent Star reporter Dugan Arnett on a seven-months-long spree of phone calls, unannounced visits, public records searches and follow-ups, and as you can tell by its sensitive nature, many of the interviews Arnett conducted required a deep empathy for its subjects.
So how did Arnett’s story serve the public interest? Well it appears to have pressured Nodaway County prosecutor Robert Rice (pictured above) to request a special prosecutor to reexamine the case this week, more than a year and a half after the charges against the three then-high schoolers were unexpectedly dropped. Whether or not the charges are re-filed is now in the hands of Mr. Rice, though in the wake of a similarly treated incident in Steubenville, Ohio and the eyes of the national media, it’s difficult to imagine his office dismissing them a second time, especially after, as Arnett put it in his story:
Sexual assault cases can be difficult to build because of factors such as a lack of physical evidence or inconsistent statements by witnesses. But by the time his department had concluded its investigation, Sheriff Darren White felt confident the office had put together a case that would “absolutely” result in prosecutions.
Matt Carney is the night editor of NewsOK.com and is a 2011 graduate of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism.