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CRISIS COMMUNICATIONS: Press ambushes CU football coach

I was sent this article that was published in the Rocky Mountain News and believe it is a great illustration of what is known as the "echo effect," which is journalism''s version of the telephone game. As reporters are influenced by the reports of others, facts become less important than impressions. Ultimately, the president of the University of Colorado, where I graduated, accepted these plainly inaccurate impressions about Coach Gary Barnett''s statements as truth, multiplying the institution''s problems. 

As of January 2006, all of the major and minor players in this drama have moved on, but the impressions -- the echo of the media''s inaccuracies -- live on. When Coach Barnett was fired in December, media accounts invariably referenced his supposedly insensitive statements about Katie Hnida. Only problem is, his statements were twisted and misrepresented countless times until the inaccuracies were the historical record.

The lesson is clear: it''s not what you say that matters, it''s how what you say is interpreted. Spokespersons need to do all they can to narrow the scope of what they are discussing in order to prevent misunderstandings or purposeful twisting of their statements. 

It''s interesting reading and just as pertinent today -- 24 months after I first posted it -- as it was then...

Ministers have a saying that "a text without a context is a pretext." In Gary Barnett''s case, the text without the context is the pretext for perhaps the most vicious case of character assassination I''ve seen in four decades of following Colorado media.

On Feb. 17, the University of Colorado head football coach held a press conference about ex-kicker Katie Hnida''s allegation that she was raped by a CU football player and harassed by some teammates. 

At 12 minutes and 50 seconds into the press conference, Barnett was asked why Hnida was resented by many teammates. He responded by explaining not only was Hnida "a girl," she was a "terrible" and "awful" player who was taking the place of players who were better.

The reporter then asked if Hnida''s perceived inability justified her being mistreated. Barnett responded "Absolutely not."

The next day, the Rocky Mountain News accurately reported Barnett''s remarks. It wrote, "Why didn''t Hnida mesh with the Buffaloes?" and supplied Barnett''s explanation that Hnida was an awful player.

But on Feb. 19, the News incorrectly wrote that Barnett''s remarks "were his response to Hnida''s rape allegations."

The same day, News columnists Mike Littwin and Tina Griego both addressed the issue. Littwin, in fact, composed two columns on the controversy. In the column that appeared in later editions, Littwin wrote that Barnett "says of Katie Hnida, the ex-Buffs kicker who alleged she had been raped and groped on Barnett''s watch, that the real problem was Hnida''s kicking ability." Littwin claimed that "Barnett must have a rape report confused with a scouting report."

News columnist Tina Griego, meanwhile, asserted that Barnett "responded to former team place-kicker Katie Hnida''s allegation that a teammate raped her by offering a brutal critique of her kicking ability."

Next day, News sport columnist Bernie Lincicome explained the controversy accurately, pointing out that "Barnett was justifying why Hnida was not on his team, not excusing anything else." The News'' Vincent Carroll made the same point in a Feb. 24 column.

At The Denver Post, a grand slam of four columnists got the story wrong on the same day, Feb. 20. Blogger Dani Newsum characterized Barnett''s statement as meaning that "being a ''girl'' was an indictable offense, allegedly punishable by rape." Reggie Rivers called Barnett "a coach who seems to believe that bad kickers get what they deserve." Dan Haley asserted that Barnett was "Responding to her allegations . . . as if \[being a girl\] was crime enough . . ." Diane Carman devoted her column to refuting Barnett''s defense that his remarks were taken out of context. Yet Carman never acknowledged that Barnett was responding to a specific question about why Hnida was resented, nor did Carman note that Barnett had specifically stated that Hnida''s poor performance was no excuse for mistreatment.

On the Feb. 19 NBC Nightly News, CU President Betsy Hoffman said that Barnett "went on for two or three, four, I don''t know how many minutes expounding on what a horrible player she was, essentially demeaning her before the world and saying because she''s a bad player it was OK for the guys to rape her."

Hoffman''s statement was entirely wrong. Barnett spoke about Hnida''s abilities for 45 seconds, and - more important - said that it was "absolutely not" all right for anyone to harass Hnida in any way. The next morning, Hoffman appeared on KOA radio''s Mike Rosen show, and Rosen confronted her at length about the disparity between what Barnett really said and what Hoffman had claimed Barnett said.

A few hours later, Hoffman issued a retraction. Speaking to the Post, Hoffman said, "I do not believe Coach Barnett feels that [Hnida''s] performance would ever justify sexual assault nor do I think his comments should be interpreted that way."

The next morning, News columnist Littwin retorted that Hoffman "of course, did interpret [Barnett''s remarks] that way, which is why Barnett . . . was suspended in the first place." Not so. In the Feb. 18 press conference suspending Barnett, Hoffman said, "We believe in the context of a rape allegation it is inappropriate to make statements about the ability of the player, and particularly the way those statements were made."

In the suspension press conference, Hoffman accused Barnett of being insensitive. She did not, at the time, accuse Barnett of justifying sexual assault.

Three stories by the Post''s Jim Hughes misled readers. On Feb. 20, wrote, "Barnett made the comments about Hnida after she went public with an allegation that she had been raped by a CU teammate." In another story that day, Hughes wrote, "Responding to reporters'' questions about Hnida''s allegation, Barnett urged her to contact police, then described her as a ''terrible'' kicker." Yet the press conference video clearly shows that when Barnett described Hnida as a "terrible" kicker, he was not responding to reporters'' questions about Hnida''s allegations; he was responding to one reporter''s question about why Hnida was unpopular with some players.

Editorially, the Post slammed Barnett. On Feb. 19, it wrote, "Whether Hnida was a good or bad player was irrelevant to whether she was a crime victim." Yet Barnett had made the same point. The next day, the Post lead editorial asserted, " . . . Barnett believed medieval attitudes about women and sexual assault were acceptable."

A Feb. 19 article by Hughes quoted Regina Cowles, president of the Boulder chapter of the National Organization for Women: "And it is really revolting to me to hear him say that these comments were taken out of context when they have been played back on tape dozens of times." Hughes then repeated Barnett''s words.

Yet the problems with all those "dozens of times" that Barnett''s words have been played is that radio and television stations (and Hughes'' article) consistently omitted the question that Barnett was answering.

Good stuff, huh?

Dealing with the echo effect is basic media relations 101. It is the reason many organizations insist on recording interviews as they happen, so they can capture the context in which a comment was made and then disseminate it as needed if there is a misrepresentation by the journalist. In the case of Gary Barnett, the organization he represents was less interested in the truth than it was in projecting a politically correct image.

Let''s hope that never happens to your or me.

Dave Kopel
(303) 892-5000
Author: Dave Kopel
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