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Official Aims to Protect Durham's Image

Wherever reporters gather to cover the Duke rape case, it's a good bet Rosemarie Kitchin is nearby.

In the past two weeks, the director of media relations for the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau showed up at a prayer service in front of Duke Chapel; on the courthouse steps as defense lawyers criticized the district attorney; and inside the courtroom where a player made his first appearance before a judge.

Celebrated two decades ago for its rundown Southern charm in the Kevin Costner baseball movie "Bull Durham," Durham has been dissected since allegations surfaced last month that members of Duke University's lacrosse team raped a stripper at a party.

Race relations, income levels, economic development, the relationship between Duke and the city — all have been examined in a search for an explanation for the scandal.

It is Kitchin's job to stick up for the Bull City in that debate.

And so she follows the reporters with an armful of bright red portfolios stuffed with promotional material about the city of 200,000. She hands out fliers or a business card, and offers reporters food from local restaurants and caterers.

"We knew we had to be on the street," said Reyn Bowman, president and chief executive of the convention and visitors bureau. "We had to be in touch with the media. ... Our job was to move quickly, and Rosemarie did that."

Durham has long been regarded in North Carolina as the bad apple of the Triangle, as the cities of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill are known. Raleigh is seen as the clean, if bland, state capital, while Chapel Hill is the bucolic university town. But Durham is viewed as troubled and crime-ridden, a rundown factory and tobacco town with elite Duke in its midst.

After a black stripper told police she was raped by white members of the Duke lacrosse team at an off-campus party, reporters descended on Durham to cover the case and the later indictment of two players.

Bowman and Kitchin said their aim is not to put a positive spin on the story, but to provide an accurate context for national depictions of their city, which has not gotten this much screen time since "Bull Durham" in 1988.

"When a frenzy hits like this, people are looking for contrasts, so the temptation is to slightly overemphasize the contrasts," Bowman said. "Durham has a bit of an image problem within a 50-mile radius anyway. That often contaminates the national coverage."

Durham officials are frustrated when writers describe Durham's population as poor and black. The city is about 46 percent white and 44 percent black, while the median household income is $41,160, or just under the national average.

The "rundown factory town" image irks as well, given that the county is home to Research Triangle Park, a collection of pharmaceutical companies and other high-technology businesses that include GlaxoSmithKline and IBM.

Kitchin said she was shocked to see a TV story show an under-construction condominium development to illustrate the reporter's point that Durham "has seen better times."

"Is the glass half-empty, or is it half-full?" she said. "He's showing huge renovation projects as though they're slums."

Bowman said a national poll conducted last week for the bureau by the firm Opinion Research Corp. showed little effect on Durham's image from the Duke case.

Asked whether they had seen, read or heard any news about Durham in the past two weeks, 28 percent of those surveyed said yes, and 63 percent said no. Asked whether their image of Durham had changed, 5 percent said it had improved, 6 percent said it had worsened and 64 percent said it was the same.

Bowman and Kitchin said they will continue their longstanding effort to improve Durham's image. For years, their bureau has urged local media outlets to dateline stories about Research Triangle Park from Durham, and to note Duke's location in Durham in stories about the university.

Kitchin's portfolio includes a handout on "25 Common Misperceptions about Durham and the reality behind them." Among the myths the handout mentions: "Race relations in Durham are hostile"; "Durham thinks of itself as the 'redheaded stepchild' of the Triangle"; and "Duke town/gown relationships are poor."