A friend of mine sent me a link to an article posted on a writing website that had her seriously concerned and had me grateful that I wasn’t in her shoes.
The college-aged woman who wrote the article stated that the head of a university’s student government had raped her. She outlined the history of their relationship, including previous consensual sexual interactions, discussed her own history of sexual encounters and detailed the incident in which she states the man had sex with her without using a condom and without her consent to do so.
In addition, she outlined specific allegations including:
- She was not the only person with whom this man had non-consensual sex: “It appears that there are many more young women than just myself who have been assaulted or harassed by him,” she wrote.
- She heard from another woman that this man had infected multiple partners with chlamydia. (She wrote that she underwent testing and her test came back negative.)
- She heard from that same woman that this man had cheated on her with multiple partners.
My friend advises the student publication at the university where this woman attends (or attended) school and where this man serves as the head of the student government. In other words, this has massive ramifications for the audience her paper serves.
The question then becomes, “How does a student media outlet go about reporting on a rape allegation, made in this fashion, in a decent, fair and ethical way while also keeping a watchful eye on any legal ramifications?” The answer in the headline is a bit glib, but it is more true than not: Basically the same way you report on anything else.
Consider these basic building blocks:
Background research must come first: Nobody wants to look like an idiot when they get into a story where they have no prior knowledge of the topic. While really bad reporters kind of fake their way through a topic, good reporters dig deep to fully understand it well enough to speak intelligently on it. Consider this the first thing you must do for ALL stories, whether you’re trying to explain how the sport of curling works (my first “what the hell do I know about this?” story that required ridiculous amounts of research) or trying to figure out how to ask questions in an interview with a rape survivor.
No matter how scary the story, you are not the first person to cover any given topic. That means there are experts out there who can help you figure things out. In the case of a story on rape, the people at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) and the folks at the Dart Center can provide you with information on the topic at hand and how to navigate your reporting. In many cases, organizations like these have put together guides, tips and hints, such as the Dart Center’s guide to covering sexual violence and trauma or its step-by-step outline of how to report on campus rapes and sexual assaults.
The best way to not feel like you’re going to do something stupid in your reporting and writing is to make yourself as smart as possible on the topic.
If your mother says she loves you, go check it out: This is the first rule of all good journalism. In other words, go do some digging for yourself before you rely on anything you hear second hand. Ask for an interview with the woman who wrote the story so you can hear her story first hand. Ask for an interview with other people directly attached to the story, such as the man accused in this story. Look for things elements of the story that can be verified without traumatizing anyone or making it look like you have already decided who is right and who is wrong.
Cases involving false rape allegations are quite rare, but the premier example of a story like this that went off the rails in a horrifying way was the Rolling Stone story, “A Rape on Campus.” The piece told the story of “Jackie,” a University of Virginia student who told the writer she had been gang raped at a fraternity party. “Jackie” also stated that the administration wouldn’t do anything to help her and that it was more concerned in protecting the image of the school than investigating her situation.
The piece ended up being retracted and it led to multi-million-dollar lawsuits against the magazine. The fraternity reached a $1.65 million settlement with the magazine, while the administrator made out to be the “chief villain” of the story reached a confidential settlement, after a federal jury awarded her a $3 million judgment that the magazine was appealing.
A post-mortem analysis of the story by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and commissioned by Rolling Stone found that the magazine had failed to do basic reporting to verify the claims asserted in the story and that the piece had basic facts wrong. The report stated the reporter never interviewed the friends “Jackie” had mentioned, instead relying on her recollections of what they told her. It also noted that specific parties and dates of events didn’t fit with actual events or parties, something that would have been easy enough to verify. The report also outline other similar things like this that could have been done to help put the magazine on a stronger footing or better decide how to proceed with the piece.
Simply put, you are a reporter, so report. That doesn’t mean you don’t believe someone, but you have to make sure you can support the content you publish to the best of your ability.
Check your legal liabilities: The Student Press Law Center provides student journalists with free legal advice on a wide array of topics. If you have concerns that a story might libel someone, a call or email to SPLC is worth your time. The “Dynamics” textbooks list off the key elements of libel as:
- Publication: Did you disseminate the content to someone other than the person claiming to be libeled?
- Identification: Is the person claiming to be libeled named or otherwise easily known based on how he or she is described in the story?
- Harm: Can the person claiming to be libeled demonstrate serious damage to his or her reputation? This usually involves being accused of a crime or associated with “unsavory” illnesses.
- Fault: Can the person claiming to be libeled show that the person publishing the content either did something wrong or failed to do something that should have been done to prevent the libelous content from being published?
In case you’re wondering, a story like this would go four-for-four in terms of these items. That means you’re into the defenses against libel, including truth, privilege and so forth. What also makes this interesting is the issue of what level of fault the man in this story would have to prove. Ordinary citizens only have to prove negligence, which is easier to show, while public figures have to demonstrate actual malice. In that instance, the public figure has to show the material was false and that the publisher had a reckless disregard for the truth. The SPLC is your friend, so give the folks there a call with questions before you publish.
The duty to report is not the same as the duty to publish: If you do your reporting and you aren’t certain you have enough of the story to tell the story, wait until you can gather enough content to feel more secure. If you find that your reporting hasn’t revealed enough to support or refute conclusions crucial to the story itself, don’t feel pressured to publish something because you are worried about “how it would look.” You are responsible for what you publish, so you need to feel confident you can stand behind what you put out there.
It’s always better to be late than wrong.
Once you get deeper into the writing, you should pay additional attention to style, word choice and clarity to avoid creating problems for your sources and your readers. In addition, having a legal eagle and an expert in the field give you a quick review for some thoughts and polish points to consider won’t hurt either.
This is obviously a serious and delicate topic, which means tact matters as does basic human decency. That said you can do all of this and adhere to quality reporting standards to make sure you put your best possible story forward.