April 24, 2015

Journalists discuss coverage of sexual assault in light of recent controversies

In the past five years, the University’s administrative role in handling cases of on-campus sexual assault has come under scrutiny; in 2012, an alumna filed a federal suit against the University for mishandling her report of sexual assault. In 2014, the Department of Education listed the University among 55 institutes of higher education then under investigation for violating Title IX law, which prevents discrimination on the basis of sex, for their administrative policies in regard to sexual assault. Administrative responses to allegations of Title IX violations, as well as the process by which media should report on allegations of on-campus sexual assault, have also been in the national spotlight.

A flashpoint came late last year, when Rolling Stone magazine retracted a November feature story titled “A Rape on Campus,” which described a fictitious allegation of a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity. Since then, college students, faculty, and administrators, as well as education reporters, have questioned how the story’s flaws will impact future reporting on collegiate sexual assault. On Monday, a panel of reporters who have covered on-campus sexual assault for national news outlets expressed consensus on two major points: reporters have an obligation to obtain comment from alleged sexual assault perpetrators, and colleges across the country are making additional preparations for handling sexual assault cases.

The panel, titled “How to Cover Campus Sex Assault,” was hosted by the Education Writers Association (EWA) as part of its annual national seminar, which took place at the InterContinental Chicago hotel in the Loop. The panelists included T. Rees Shapiro, a reporter with the Washington Post, Tyler Kingkade, Senior Editor of the Huffington Post, and Nicole Noren, a producer with ESPN. In December, Shapiro wrote one of the first mainstream news stories that cast doubt on the truth of the series of events portrayed in the Rolling Stone feature, by taking statements from both the UVA police and several friends of “Jackie,” the alleged sexual assault victim. He said that his straightforward reporting style was essential for completing the investigation.

“It’s all about transparency from the very beginning, working slowly, and being as deliberate as possible. The alleged victim also has to want to talk to the media; if their case is factual, they were forced to do something that they didn’t want to do. The last thing you want to do is make them do something else that they don’t want to do,” he said.

However, he also said that his carefully planned writing method led to some initial difficulties when he was struggling to find on-campus sources to go on the record and challenge the events depicted in Rolling Stone.  

“At UVA, the environment hasn’t chilled at all, even after our own reporting showed the flaws in the Rolling Stone reporting. At the beginning [of the investigation], I knew the name of the alleged perpetrator. But when I asked the administration if anyone by that name or a derivative of that name had attended UVA, or had ever attended, and they said ‘no,’ I thought that was weird. But I still didn’t have any other sources. The turning point came when I was walking around the campus late at night, and I bumped into several of Jackie’s friends, who would later become my main sources. They said that they were beginning to have doubts about Jackie’s story,” Shapiro said.

He added that in time, he was able to win the trust of both Jackie’s friends and members of Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity that was falsely accused of perpetrating the assault against Jackie at one of their parties.

“I messaged every single fraternity member by both e-mail and Facebook. I later found out that they had a lot of proof that they didn’t throw a party that night, including the fact that they didn’t buy a keg. Everyone knows that a frat party needs kegs. Anyway, by the time they opened up, they knew who I was,” he said.

Kingkade, who covered a series of sexual assault cases at the University of North Carolina in 2012 that resulted in the alleged victims filing federal complaints against UNC for mishandling their cases, said that reaching out to alleged perpetrators is especially important, because in most sexual assault lawsuits, both sides feel wronged.

He also said that Title IX law and the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) are valuable tools, both for journalists to obtain accurate information and for sexual assault survivors to obtain justice.

“In 2012 at UNC, the complainants went to the Education Department, and the Office of Civil Rights, and filed a Title IX suit. With a Clery complaint [pursuant to the Clery Act, a federal statute passed in 1990 that requires colleges that receive federal funds to release statistics related to on-campus crime], schools that are found to be in violation of the act are only subject to a $35,000 fine. If the case is prosecuted under Title IX, the school loses federal money that it uses for research grants and financial aid, which is definitely not something that [the administration] wants to happen…. Also, no two parties can demand more information from a school about a sexual assault case than the accuser and the accused, under a FERPA waiver,” Kingkade said.

Noren added that while FERPA can be useful for obtaining information about a sexual assault case from any college, school administrators might also protect themselves from allegations of mishandling student complaints by invoking a little-known clause in the act that allows them to access the medical records of students who file sexual assault complaints.

“I don’t know any college that isn’t receiving federal dollars, and therefore would not have to follow FERPA. However, in the recent case at the University of Oregon [an alleged gang rape perpetrated by three members of the men’s basketball team], the school used the FERPA clause to get the medical and psychiatric records of the accuser. Schools are becoming more aggressive in defending themselves, and this is very calculated,” she said.

Noren also suggested that while administrators feel particularly threatened by recent Title IX lawsuits and the false accusations at UVA, investigative reporting on sexual assault cases is far from dead.

“Schools are in protection mode, and administrators are even threatening campus [sexual assault awareness] activists in order to prevent them from speaking to the media.”