Sexual Assault: Two sides of the story?

When it comes to sexual assault, there can be a lot of conflicting reads. On the one hand, journalists produce statistics that say that 22.5% of undergraduate women at the University of Michigan have been sexually assaulted. But journalists simultaneously draw a good deal of attention to cases like that of Drew Sterrett from the article “Lawsuit: U-M unfairly kicked student out over sexual assault allegation.” Readers end up being hit with contradictory articles, some of which say that sexual assault is on the rise and others that say sexual assault victims are making it up.

Reading the Rolling Stone article in this context, I started to wonder if the men from the University of Virginia fraternity party deserved a chance to speak in the article. What is a journalist’s role in covering both sides of this particular issue? Because many rape allegations are not taken seriously, and very few are reported and ultimately convicted, does presenting the alleged rapists’ or sexual assaulter’s side of the story benefit readers and society? Does it undermine the survivors’ story? This makes me wonder if journalism – a place in which both sides of the story should be objectively told – is the right medium to talk about specific instances of sexual assault. On the one hand, it could be extremely painful for a true survivor to suffer through reading the words of his or her perpetrator, but at the same time, it’s unfair to accuse someone of sexual assault and not give him or her the opportunity to respond. In this vein, does the gender of the journalist matter when covering sexual assault?

Finally, based on the readings, does it appear there is general consensus into what is sexual assault and what is not? Could these gaps impact the reliability of the sexual assault articles? For example, the UM survey on sexual assault defined sexual assault as any unconsensual kissing or touching. What could be potential impacts of journalists not having a single consistent definition of sexual assault? Do they have one?

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About rbeglin

University of Michigan Class of 2018, Program in the Environment Major

6 Responses to “Sexual Assault: Two sides of the story?”

  1. The rolling stones article demonstrates that a desire to tell a certain story distracts from the ability of a journalist to tell the truth of a story. After reading the NYtimes article I couldn’t help but look for the original article and instead I found this:

    http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/a-rape-on-campus-what-went-wrong-20150405?page=14

    This article fully outlines the whole process in which the article was being written and what went wrong. It fully exposes the reader to the extensive process that the journalist went through to get this story told and the pockets of doubt in Jackie’s story that crept in but were perhaps ignored in an effort to tell a story. I became convinced that the fraternity did have a say and reemphasized the need for both sides of the story to be told, even for a topic like sexual assault. And if it cannot be be told unbiased, it should not be run at all.

    The topic of sexual assault challenges journalism as a whole in writing unbiased work. The topic makes for a big headline, jackie’s story is compelling and provocative but it doesn’t warrant a journalist and the rolling stones to ignore the other side. When journalism ignores the need to present unbiased stories, it leaves society with biased notions or in the rolling stone’s case; a retraction and PR disaster.

    As readers called out the rolling stones for their work, it shows that the consumers of news desire an unbiased story. Yet, still, bias’s remain engrained in much of what we read from the news today and I wonder, what is the driving force behind presenting a bias? Is it having to do with the pressure journalist are facing in maintaing a living? Is it that journalists are wavering in their skills of writing? Is it that a story is more compelling when one side is told?

  2. I think articles like the one from Rolling Stone which failed to give representation of the accused males do very little to arrive at truth, which is what journalism ultimately attempts to do. In this case, it doesn’t do any good for anyone involved: Jackie ends up being blamed for flinging accusations, the male fraternity members accused don’t get their voices heard, and the public is ultimately left more confused. I don’t think journalists should interview the victim of an assault while agreeing to the stipulation that they can’t speak with his/her assaulter. Even if all signs point to the assaulter being guilty, one of the professed great things about the U.S. is that everyone is innocent until proven guilty – and it really isn’t the job of the journalist to determine who is guilty. Neglecting to speak to the accused rapist is assuming said person is guilty.

  3. On sexual assault, journalism has assumed a dangerous position where it is often playing the role of the judge and the jury. I think that journalists often act as activists for issues that the government and other institutions are not focusing on. In this way, journalism acts in the public interest. There many examples of investigations by journalists prompting public outcry and real change. The most recent article that comes to mind is the feature the New York Times ran on the working conditions at nail salons. How sexual assault is addressed on campus by administrators is ripe for investigating. However, clearly, the journalist was tantalized by the prospect of a good, impactful story. Yet, due diligence on issues where journalism is often the main outlet for public discourse is especially critical to maintain trust.

    We trust these institutions because of their history of and reputation for accuracy. While accuracy and fairness may be intertwined, the former is what gives journalism authority. If the Rolling Stones article had been entirely accurate, I don’t think we would be having the same conversation about whether the other side of the story should’ve been told. While the author should’ve followed up on the details of Jackie’s story, I’m conflicted about to what extent a story about sexual assault can be fair. Fair is subjective to each person and a story fair to an alleged victim would be hard pressed to be fair to the alleged perpetrator. Every story has an angle and, when the issues are emotionally charged, the angle is bound to biased toward a particular perspective. I think the most important element is journalism is, no matter how you tell a story, that what you present is factually accurate.

  4. The Rolling Stone article brings up a lot of interesting questions about reporting on an extremely sensitive topic area, such as sexual assault. As a journalist, I want to say that you need to confirm the story with multiple sources 100% of the time, so there can be no doubt as to the truthfulness of your story. But as a human, I want to say that you need to do whatever you can do to help the woman who suffered something so awful feel safe.

    The Rolling Stone article made me really ponder the ethics of journalism, and the role of a journalist. If I were in the shoes of the journalist who stumbled upon this story, I wonder what I would do. It’s an extremely powerful, hard-hitting story that has the potential to change the landscape of sexual assault reporting on campuses. In a lot of ways, I think it did change the landscape of sexual assault reporting, just not the way the journalist intended. I can see so clearly both sides of the issue. What would I do if a woman approached me with this story she was willing to tell under the condition that I didn’t contact any of the people she was accusing?

    Now that everything is out in the open, the answer seems very clear. When it came out that the story might not be credible, the story seemed to cause more confusion than it cleared up. Though no one is still really sure of exactly what happened, the men in the fraternity are still extremely disrespected by a lot of people and “Jackie” seems like a fraud.

    What I took away from this incident is that stories are powerful, and have the power to either help or hurt a lot of people, especially when the story is about a topic so sensitive. There’s a fine line between respecting the wishes of the person telling the story, and making absolutely sure that all the facts are right.

  5. I think you raise a really good question with this post. As I was reading the Rolling Stone’s article, I also found myself questioning whether it was necessarily a proper medium to address sexual assault, especially in the way that they did, by covering it as a news story. However, I feel uncomfortable with that thought in itself, because I feel that often the point of media is to address the social issues that are being hushed up or aren’t being addressed like they should be. In the case of this Rolling Stones article, however, I think the issue was that rather than approaching the story with the intentions of having an honest discussion about the problems American college campuses have with sexual assault, the journalists saw the opportunity for a large, attention-grabbing story and neglected to do due diligence with fact checking and investigating.

  6. The Rolling Stones article brings up one of the most difficult problems in journalism and that’s uncovering the truth. Especially in an article such as this one, where the majority of your information comes from people’s memories what is the truth and what has been distorted by time and memory can be extremely tough, if not impossible to figure out. This is what ultimately makes reporting on sexual assaults so difficult. The majority of the time there is not concrete evidence as to what happened, it’s just one person’s word against another person’s word. Being objective is even tougher when you have to rely on personal accounts of what was most likely an emotional charged situation.

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