A Murder Made for the Front Page

When Nicole duFresne died, man bit dog and ink flowed

But did the website belong to the right Nicole duFresne? At Newsday, metro editor Diane Davis's staff found four women with that name, and one reporter actually called a living one's relative. Over at the Times, Wilson—not knowing if he had found the right Nicole—left a message on the victim's cell phone, then called a second number listed on her website. A short time later, Jeffrey Sparks called him back and confirmed that Wilson had found the right duFresne. Wilson asked Sparks how he'd heard about the crime.

"She died in my arms," Sparks, the fiancé, said. Suddenly, Wilson had the victim's life story and an eyewitness in hand.

The Daily News was also in touch with Sparks, having sent a reporter to his door. Sparks and duFresne's mother and brother—who appeared on multiple network morning programs—were crucial to the development of the story. "Sometimes we pursue a story and we come up against closed doors and you realize people don't want to talk. In this case, people did want to talk," Davis says.

Three tabloids with covers featuring photos of Rudy Fleming
photo: Cary Conover
Three tabloids with covers featuring photos of Rudy Fleming

For the tabs, it was instant front-page material, and it returned to page one over several days, thanks to the release of the surveillance tape and the unusually fast sequence of arrests. The Times played it on the metro front. Jamieson says it deserved that prominence because it was "a random crime on the streets of New York, somebody who dies in something as stupid as a mugging." That it was her first night of work and a crime in an "interesting neighborhood" were also factors, he adds.

For Chang, "It's the kind of story that you'd want to hear, one of those aspiring- success stories." Davis agrees. "People come to New York to make it here and here is a woman who did just that," she says. "So I think that strikes a chord with a lot of people, including people who are covering the story as well."

In 1980, when Jean Harris, the head of a ritzy Southern girls' school, killed her lover, the "Scarsdale diet" doctor Herman Tarnower, the case was splashed on the Times front page day after day, leading CBS News mandarin Fred Friendly to ask Times headman Abe Rosenthal if it really deserved that much ink. After all, it was just a murder. "But it's our kind of murder," Rosenthal said.

In other words, it's the kind of murder you don't expect to hear about because it crosses into the ranks of the not-often murdered. It's man bites dog, the definition of a story. How unexpected was Nicole duFresne's death? As a white woman, she had only a one-in-50,000 chance of being murdered, and only one in seven white murder victims is slain by a black person.

The metro chiefs say race simply didn't factor in. "We're worried about trying to find the most interesting story on each given day," says Chang. He contends the duFresne story "would have been no less compelling had she been black or Asian or Latino." Davis says there was internal discussion at Newsday about whether the duFresne story was being played appropriately. "It certainly crosses our mind," she says, but adds that editors make their calls on how to play a killing based on the other stories of each day, not murders from months past. "You can't look at it in a vacuum." Jamieson says race "just never entered my head."

What enters readers' heads is another matter. "The story and the play alone create the perception that white people are vulnerable to assault from black people," says Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute. "Now, if that's not true, you as a journalist have an obligation to point out what the reality is."

Race is undeniably part of the duFresne story. The randomness and location of the crime are linked to race, because white women are so rarely killed and the Seventh Precinct is gentrifying. If skin color didn't figure into how papers handled duFresne's killing—and there were plenty of color-blind reasons to work this story—maybe it should have had a place in the stories themselves. A simple reference to how rare black-on-white crime is would acknowledge the racial dynamic inherent in the facts. "More—not less—information is really important," says McBride.

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