One of the most difficult and yet relevant coverage topics for college media outlets is sexual assault. From deep data dives to survivors’ stories, collegiate journalists must find a way to approach this topic with a sense of determination and yet maintaining a delicate nature.
The Torch, the student newspaper at Ferris State University in Michigan, developed some of the broadest coverage I have seen on this topic, and not just in the wake of #metoo or the Kavanaugh hearings. Advisers Steven Fox tipped me off to the work of his staff and the “strong voice” of his former news editor Harley Harrison.
Harrison worked at the Torch during her time at Ferris, serving as a news reporter in 2016-17 and a news editor during her final year on campus. You can find some of her favorite pieces here and here. Additional coverage, such as the look at the Title IX department itself and the process of reporting sexual assault, demonstrated the paper’s wider view of the issue itself.
During her time in school, Harrison also worked as a writing consultant at the campus writing center and as a student assistant in the Title IX office. She graduated May 2018 with a double major in technical/professional writing and Spanish and now works as a technical writer at Centria Healthcare Autism Services in Novi, Michigan.
A journalist, an advocate and a sexual assault survivor, Harrison has a distinctive perspective on the topic at hand, and she was willing to share her thoughts the subject in an email interview. Below is a Q and A with minor edits for clarity and focus:
What kind of drove you and the staff to look into this topic? Was it the national trend of statistics or was something happening on your campus at that point that got you involved in this area? What made it important to you to cover at this point and in this time?
I think that I was always naturally drawn to the topic of sexual assault because I am a survivor myself. It didn’t start to influence my work at the Torch until I started working at the Title IX Office with other survivors who inspired me to raise awareness. When I became News Editor, I started having my reporters write more and more about sexual assault. Everything I have written is mainly opinion pieces and editorials because I feared that my work at the Title IX Office would make me biased towards sexual assault coverage. I also outsourced a lot of the coverage to my reporters and my EIC, Angie Graf, to maintain unbiased coverage.
That being said, I think the Me Too movement really launched our coverage into the next gear because, for the first time, everyone around us actually wanted to talk about a topic that is usually shunned and private. We realized that we couldn’t miss the opportunity to cover a shift in campus culture.
In January, I had a survivor reach out to me because her case was mishandled by the school and she wanted to make it public. I had to outsource the story to the EIC and one of my reporters because I knew too much from the Title IX standpoint. Due to an open-records issue, it never ended up being published before my graduation, but it was the first time we actively interviewed survivors and their supporters. Finally, by the spring, the Larry Nassar case was a huge topic that we tried to cover.
It put me in a very difficult position because the Title IX Office became a critical topic and I couldn’t share any confidential details with my staff at the Torch. I also knew that it had to be covered because I knew many survivors at Ferris would see everything happening at MSU and wonder if the same thing would happen at Ferris.
Bringing awareness to sexual assault became a constant goal in every aspect of my life. It was natural for me to find it essential to be covered at the Torch.
How hard were these stories to do and which ones were more or less difficult to do? I’m asking because in some cases, the difficulty comes from administrators who don’t want the “numbers to get out” and have people think of the campus as unsafe. In other cases, it’s victims who want to come forward and make people aware, but the trauma is so difficult, they just can’t speak to journalists at all. How tough was this to do for you, the staff and the campus as a whole?
I’ve actually experienced difficulties with both administration and survivors, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that one is more difficult than the other. The Title IX Office at Ferris has always been open to sharing numbers and the Campus Climate Survey was public for anyone to see. In fact, the Title IX Office was very transparent up until the Larry Nassar case. At this point, administrators asked that the Title IX Office only communicate with the media through a spokesperson.
It was quite the struggle for me because I knew the Title IX Office had good intentions, but they came across as if they were hiding something because of the new lack of transparency. I’ll never forget sending my reporters from the paper to speak with my superiors at the Title IX Office and have them being turned away.
As for speaking with survivors, I wouldn’t use the term “difficult.” While it is traumatic for survivors to share their stories, they usually want to if they are coming forward to the press. We weren’t seeking them out. They were coming to us. We also had a lot of survivors on staff, so I think everyone was quite sensitive to how interviews and confidentiality were to be handled. Because of my work at the Title IX Office, I never interviewed survivors for the Torch, however, I did coach my reporters to do so with sensitivity.
What was the reaction to your publication of these pieces? Was there some sort of increased awareness? Did people tell you to knock it off? Was the school more attuned to the issue after your work or did everything kind of go on as business as usual?
We had really inspiring reactions to the publication of our pieces. I even had survivors come up to me and confide in me after we published. I like to think that our work at the Torch is partially why more students reported sexual assaults that year in a higher rate than ever before and why more students were open about taking the Campus Climate Survey. For the first time, students were having open conversations about assault and they were learning about how to access the resources they needed.