“I don’t think there is ever an easy way to go about covering sexual assault:” Reflections on and Advice for Reporting on Sexual Assault in Student Media (Part II)

Today, we have the second part of our Q and A with Harley Harrison, the former news editor at Ferris State University’s student newspaper, The Torch. Harrison, who graduated in 2018 with a degree in technical/professional writing and Spanish, served as the news editor at the paper and helped shepherd some extensive and in-depth looks at sexual assault issues on the campus.

For a look back at Part I, click here.

As a journalist, and as a Title IX-affiliated individual, what advice can you give to student journalists who want to get started on a piece about sexual assault, but don’t know where to start or are worried about what might happen if they do? How did you get started and how did you avoid creating problems for yourself and your sources in your work?

I love this question because I don’t think there is ever an easy way to go about covering sexual assault. But first, I think student journalists need to realize that there are many, many basis to cover.

When we talk about campus sexual assault, we often think about victim vs. campus administration vs. accused (especially after stories like Nassar). But in reality, it is more like a web of communication. You not only have administration, but you also have housing, campus police, advocacy groups, women’s shelters in the area, and hospitals. All of these organizations can impact a case or how cases are generally handled.

For example, the hospital in Big Rapids didn’t always have nurses on staff who could conduct rape kits, so survivors had to go all the way to Grand Rapids to get testing. This meant that a lot of survivors weren’t getting tested in time and, therefore, there was a lack of evidence. Another example is that the women’s shelter started collecting clothing donations so that survivors wouldn’t have to return to the dorms from the hospital in hospital gowns or scrubs (clothes are collected as evidence). These organizations all function together to support students, but when one organization isn’t helping survivors, it can lead to the mishandling of the situation.

The other aspect that student journalists have to realize is that the way a story about sexual assault is conveyed could have negative impacts on other survivors. For example, a story that accuses the Title IX Office of not believing survivors is going to discourage other survivors from seeking the Office as a resource. You really have to contemplate if it’s worth it. You have to ask yourself if the story will do more harm than good.


What suggestions would you have for student journalists who want to talk to victims of sexual assault without doing more harm than good? My great fear as a reporter would be (and probably still would be now) that I’d fumble over myself too much or that I’d ask a question that I shouldn’t be asking/a question that would really hurt the person. What advice do you have here?

I think my experience as a survivor is going to be more influential for my advice than my experience as a journalist. I naturally knew how to talk to survivors because I am a survivor. Some aspects are really simple and standard across the board for all survivors.

For example, don’t use the term “victim” when speaking to them. Always use the term “survivor” because that’s what they are. Using the term “victim” only victimizes them further and can be construed in so many ways. For legal reasons, you may have to write in the article “accuser”, depending on the story, but don’t blatantly interview a survivor only to remind them that they are a victim.

Another example of a broad standard is that reporters should not blame the survivor while asking them questions.  A common question that survivors get asked is “Were you drinking?” or “What were you wearing?” But the truth is, it doesn’t matter because what happened to them is still wrong.

Sexual assault is the only crime where the victim of the crime is also the one accused. You wouldn’t ask those questions to someone who just had their laptop stolen, so don’t ask those questions to someone who has been sexually assaulted. As a journalist, you want them to feel empowered to speak freely with you, rather than feeling ashamed of their story.

Yet, there are also a lot of aspects about interviewing survivors that are quite complex because every survivor is different. The majority of survivors experience a type of PTSD and sharing their story can be extremely traumatizing for them, but it varies for each survivor.

For example, writing is always very personal for me, so it’s a lot harder for me to write my story than to share it face-to-face. But I have met survivors who can’t fathom the idea of verbally sharing their story and they would prefer to write it. It can be really hard as a journalist to determine what is going to be triggering for a survivor so it’s important to keep all options open.

You have to be really patient and soft when asking questions. Allow the survivor to share their story at their own pace and to make decisions about how the interview will be conducted.. Ask only open ended questions and stray away from putting words in their mouth. If they need a break, give them a break. If they need a friend there to hold their hand, allow it. Most importantly, be prepared to hear details that are very difficult to hear.


What would you most want to tell people about your experiences with these pieces and what would you most want to have student journalists know if they had an interest in going after this topic on their campuses? Any words of wisdom?

My general advice, which coincides with any topic a journalist is covering, is to do your research first. There are many resources out there that have statistics about sexual assault on campus that can provide great credibility to your story. Fortunately, there is probably a consent-driven or bystander group on campus that has a lot of experience with talking to survivors that can coach a journalist more thoroughly.

Most campuses also have at least one medical professional who is trained to speak with a survivor, and they may also have tips on what kinds of questions to ask. Don’t forget the importance of including resources in the article because roughly 25 percent of the women who read the article are survivors and many of them may need help.


Anything you think I missed or anything you’d like to say beyond what I covered?

I think the most humbling idea to keep in mind is that approximately one in four women and one in ten men (even more for transgender and non-gender conforming individuals) have been sexually assaulted in the United States.

If you (the journalist) are not a survivor, keep in mind that someone you love, someone you sit next to in class, or even someone on your staff is a survivor – even if they haven’t told you. How you write the article will have a major impact on how that individual trusts you.

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