130313LoomisMarch 13, 2013

In researching his master’s thesis, “Modern Witch Hunts: How Media Have Mishandled Ritual Child-Sex-Abuse Cases,” UNC Chapel Hill journalism student David O. Loomis focused on the inadequate coverage provided by the weekly Chowan Herald in Edenton.

“North Carolina law,” Loomis acknowledged, “prohibits official disclosure of information about ongoing criminal investigations. Under the circumstances, gathering information about questionable interrogations conducted in therapy sessions would be a difficult and complex undertaking for a small reporting staff on a tight budget….”

The comments he elicited from Jack D. Grove, former managing editor of the Herald, reflect the challenge stories such as Little Rascals present tiny newsrooms – and the severely limited guidance they are able to make available to readers in forming opinions:

On his journalistic experience: “I was never a professional reporter.”

On being almost three months behind the Elizabeth City Advance in starting to cover the story: “In a small town like Edenton, reputations are at stake. Reputations are everything in a small town.”

On relations with prosecutors and police: “The district attorney became our prime source…. I didn’t ask questions of the Police Department at all, because I knew what the answers were going to be…. I did ask Brenda Toppin, who I did not know was lead investigator, but I got an uncharacteristic cold shoulder. She said, ‘I can’t comment on an ongoing investigation.’ That was interesting.”

On the newsroom budget: “I could only make long-distance calls when the boss would let me. He never refused. But he had to approve.”

 On outside pressure: “I was approached by several influential businessmen who clouded up and rained all over me for putting a (Little Rascals) story on the back page. I said, ‘Go tell Pete Manning (the publisher), don’t tell me.’ These businessmen, almost all parents of Little Rascals children, went into a closed-door meeting with Pete. We never again had a story anywhere but on the front page after that.”

Courtesy of David Loomis, “Modern Witch Hunts” is now available on the Bookshelf of case materials on this website.