Liberian Rape Case: Republic Claims English Language Differences "May Have" Skewed Police Investigation

Newspaper articles that contain the word "may" in the nutgraph, the "what's this article about" paragraph, should often be considered suspect from the start.

It's a J-school basic, and it makes sense. After all, the casual reader can easily turn that into an equally accurate "may not" phrase, which renders the entire story moot. Such is the case with the Arizona Republic article today headlined "Side issue emerges in Liberian rape case."

The article, by reporter Jahna Berry, speculates (through her sources) that although the Liberian refugees involved in a shocking July 16 rape case in Phoenix and police investigators were all speaking English, "the police inquiry ... suggests that not everyone tied to the case may have clearly understood what was being said during the investigation."

The article makes two major blunders, in our humble opinion.

The first is that by using part of interview with the 8-year-old rape victim's father so prominently, Berry requires readers to believe the reporter who conducted the earlier interview (Repub reporter Richard Ruelas) did not make the same linguistic screw-ups the article accuses police of doing.

A number of good follow-up questions, not a linguistics seminar, might have cleared up the meaning behind the following passage:

After the girl received a five-hour medical examination following the attack, the father asked a hospital worker about her condition.

"I asked her twice: 'Anything wrong with her? Anything took place?' " he told an Arizona Republic reporter in an interview. "She said, 'No, nothing happened to her.' " That led him to believe that his daughter had not been attacked, he said.

We remember reading that exchange in the Repub after Ruelas wrote the article. Here's the whole passage:

After a five-hour examination at St. Joseph's Hospital, the father said, a woman he was believed was a doctor told him that his daughter was fine.

"I asked her twice, anything wrong with her? Anything took place?" he said. "She said, 'No, nothing happened to her.'."

The father said he felt relief. "When the doctor told us nothing happened to her, I feel all right," he said. "I feel happy."

That medical opinion also made sense, he said, because he had not noticed any recent emotional or physical changes in his daughter.

"If anything was damaged, she would be at home, quiet," he said. Instead, he said she would play with friends like normal, running around the apartment complex. He said she never complained of any pain.

That led him to believe the doctor when she told him his daughter wasn't attacked, he said. "I believed that nothing happened to her."

For the father to believe "nothing happened" at that point simply makes little sense. It comes off as -- at best -- wishful thinking, and might even be evidence that the father is not taking the rape (which did happen) seriously -- which bolsters the police side of the story.

The other problem we had with Berry's article is when it discusses whether the boys involved, aged 9, 10, 13 and 14, completely understood they waived their rights to have a parent or guardian present during the police interview. The article sticks too solidly with its theme, completely ignoring the obvious -- that the boys' young age could have been a bigger problem here than any language barriers. Yet the Repub published a whole article on August 5 about exactly that possibility.

In any case, the evidence presented in today's Repub article falls short of supporting its "may" lead.

The article would have been just as accurate to claim that differences in American and Liberian English may not have played any significant role in this investigation.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.