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Journalists share advice on investigating campus sexual assault

Investigating student rights violations - From fraternities to the administration

By Christian Matozzo

Reporters Walt Bogdanich, Samantha Sunne, and Duane Pohlman offered tips on how to cover sexual assault on college campuses during a panel discussion at the annual IRE Conference in Philadelphia. Frank LoMonte from the Student Press Law Center moderated the panel.

Campus sexual assaults have received more coverage recently due to increased public interest and the “secret factor,” meaning universities hiding information from the public.

Bogdanich, of The New York Times, offered five tips on how to report on these cases:

  • Don’t approach the story with a goal of obtaining a verdict for either side; it may not happen.
  • Focus on the institutions responsible (police departments, universities, etc.).
  • Be prepared to walk away from the story, especially if the victim doesn’t wish to talk.
  • Don’t use fake names.
  • Get the other side, especially the person being accused. And make every effort to get a statement from the school.

Sunne, an independent journalist, explained that she had never been able to convince a victim to talk to her. This forced her to switch gears and report solely on how universities handle these types of cases. The first step, she said, is to ask universities: “How many reports did you get, and what did you do with them?”

Sunne offered an anecdote from her own reporting, which included taking a university to court over a public records request. The battle took nine months and culminated in the university reporting that only two cases of sexual assault resulted in punitive action by the school. During the same time period, dozens of sex offenses had been reported to counselors and police. 

Pohlman, a broadcast journalist for NBC4 Columbus, brought examples of a story he covered on alleged sexual assault cases involving Ohio State University’s band. His main tip for reporters was to look into Title IX investigations for possible insights into sexual impropriety.

“Title IX is the lens everyone looks through,” Pohlman said. “It is everything.”

Federal funding is tied to Title IX, which makes it possible for reporters to follow the money, Pohlman said.

Bogdanich noted the amount of money colleges devote to programs like “Walk a Mile In Her Shoes,” which raises sexual assault awareness on college campuses. Reporters can follow the money with these programs, too.

“Who is making money advising these universities?” asked Bogdanich.

Christian Matozzo is a lifelong South Philadelphia resident and Temple University journalism student who currently writes for The Temple News.


Sexual assault investigations: Empathy, accuracy and transparency

By Andrea Gonzales

Sexual assault stories “need to be told and get told well,” said Elana Newman, research director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

Campus sexual assault investigations have been in the spotlight recently – and not always in a good way. There have been powerful accounts, such as Nicole Noren’s episode of ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” which told the well-documented story of rape victims at the University of Missouri. But then came Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus,” which reported on an alleged sexual assault at the University of Virginia. The magazine later retracted the article.

One of the University of Missouri sexual assault survivors, Teresa Braeckel, participated in an IRE Conference panel and explained how Noren communicated openly with her about the records she needed, the people she had to talk to and every other step in the journalistic process. She said standards were set at the beginning, including an agreement to use her name. Braeckel said Noren was always clear and frank as she gathered information and documents.

A FERPA waiver is a great tool to see how a school reacted to a report of sexual assault, Noren said. A student can sign the waiver to give a reporter or news organization access to his or her records. Noren said it’s also important to get medical records to check the consistency of a victim’s story.

“Stories and memories do change,” said Newman. “That’s why records are so important.”

Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and one of the authors a report on Rolling Stone’s U. Va. investigation, said journalists’ empathy and storytelling could lead to holes in reporting. To mitigate a possible problem, she said, reporters should ask for any relevant documents and photographs. After an incident, people may text and email family or friends — so try to obtain those records. Police reports and 911 calls can be used in stories as well, Coronel said.

Everyone on the panel emphasized the importance of informing the victim of the journalistic process and why you might need those documents.

Braeckel said the story needs to be right because so many people tend to doubt rape victims in a “he said, she said” situation.

“It is so important to get these stories right,” said Bruce Shapiro of the Dart Center. “Because the damage if you don’t is major.”

Andrea Gonzales is a rising senior at the Missouri School of Journalism. She will graduate with a degree in broadcast journalism with an emphasis in reporting and anchoring. She has previously interned with Scripps Washington Bureau's investigative unit and Detroit's WXYZ-TV special projects unit.

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