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Breaking the silence with reporting on sexual misconduct

By Dariya Tsyrenzhapova

Only one-third of victims of sexual harassment ever report those incidents to the authorities, Bernice Yeung said. Yeung, a journalist with Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and a member of award-winning teams that produced documentaries "Rape in the Fields" and "Rape on the Night Shift,” spoke as part of a CAR Conference panel on responsibly covering sexual misconduct.

Jason Hancock, the Capitol correspondent for the Kansas City Star, has broken several stories of sexual harassment allegations involving high-profile Missouri politicians and lobbyists. Two state employees resigned following his coverage. Hancock said he collected personal accounts of more than 40 women, and five of them went on the record, emboldened by each other’s bravery to speak up publicly.

It takes both time and trust before a victim agrees to open up. “This is not a situation when you want to go into an ultra-aggressive reporter mode,” said Ellen Gabler, an investigative reporter at The New York Times. Yeung said the approach is similar to “a very long, slow dance” that involves going through a third-party intermediary and requesting an off-the-record meeting to build trust.

“It’s not about convincing anyone, but it’s a matter of presenting them with an opportunity to share the story,” Yeung said. “It’s not about trying to sell them on that idea, but providing them with enough information about what and why are you doing it so that they could make an informed choice.”

Collecting information on this highly sensitive and personal topic is difficult and onerous, often taking months of reporting. Individual accounts drive the narrative thread, but to scope out larger trends and patterns, the panelists suggested studying respondent data from census polls. The National Survey of Family Growth includes a question about forced sex as a measure to track incidents of sexual assault in a family setting, Yeung said.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency that enforces laws against workplace discrimination, collects sexual harassment complaints and annually publishes summary statistics by gender, resolution result and size of monetary settlements. In 2017, the EEOC received more than 6,500 complaints, a consistent number for the past four years.

Giving the victims and the accused an equal chance to speak up is important in getting the facts right. While reaching out to the accused, Yeung said, “We should put in as much time as we do trying to seek out the victim’s perspective.”

Citing an example of Rolling Stone’s retracted article about a rape case at the University of Virginia, BuzzFeed News senior reporter Lam Thuy Vo said, “Sometimes, getting it wrong can do much more harm that it can actually help the cause.”

Dariya Tsyrenzhapova is a journalism student at the University of Missouri.

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