Speaking on Sexual Assault: How Journalists Change the Conversation

Sexual assault is a difficult topic for journalists to cover, and there are many factors that play into the ways an article addresses the subject.

With the articles relating to Betsy Devos’s announcement to reexamine Title IX, there are obvious differences that can be seen straight from the start of both pieces.  The Politico article takes a more hard news objective stance by focusing on the announcement itself and providing equal space to the rights of the accused and accusers. On the other hand, the NY Times article positions the reader to emphasize with Devos’s situation by focusing on the reasons behind the announcement to rescind parts of the legislature developed by the Obama administration. It is significantly more descriptive and emotive as it includes context on the personal narratives from students who considered themselves to be wrongfully accused. These approaches led me to wonder about the role of emotion and including personal excerpts in articles about sexual assault, such as the account in the NY Times article about from the father of Corey Mock. In most articles about sexual assault, personal narratives come from the side of the person who was assaulted, and I wonder what the impact is on the reader to have narratives from those accused be the main voice in an article.

In regards to both of the NY Times articles on The Rolling Stones piece on sexual assault (linked here and here), it is interesting to see how the journalists failed to follow up on the story and decided to publish something without getting all of the facts. Where does one draw the line between protecting the anonymity of a source and validating the accuracy of a claim, especially when it is a sensitive subject such as sexual assault? How could the author of “A Rape On Campus” have done better, and how does this article affect the future of journalism relating to sexual assault?

Is it a journalist’s job to believe and protect victims of sexual assault or is it their job to continue questioning the situation to fact check the story – even on highly sensitive issues such as sexual assault? What is their role in shaping the story and choosing who to interview and who not to interview? And how will the stories journalists tell affect political legislation overall and sexual assault victims and the accused going forward?

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5 Responses to “Speaking on Sexual Assault: How Journalists Change the Conversation”

  1. Regarding the two NYT articles about the “A Rape on Campus” story, something that caught my attention especially was in one article, it mentions that “Rolling Stone had not sought to corroborate her account.” I feel that while it is certainly important to protect victims of sexual assault, the magazine here failed to do one of its most essential jobs in ensuring that the news it published was accurate. Although I do not think it would be good for the reporter to question a victim in a way that seems like they disbelieve their story, it is still important to fact-check, which in this situation seems like it was entirely overlooked.

    Regarding the Betsy DeVos stories, I think your evaluation of the stance each story takes is clear even from reading the title – the NYT article’s title sounds much less accusatory than the Political article, saying the policies will “get a new look” instead of be “scrap[ped].” I agree that emotion played a role in these articles in shaping the story – the NYT article began with a longer introduction expressing the point of view of accused sexual assaulters, which I think serves (whether unintentionally or not) to bias the reader towards their perspective throughout the rest of the piece. The Politico article, on the other hand, begins with a factual lead without emotional input, then gives both sides of the argument equal exposure at the beginning of the story, which I think helps keep the reader neutral so that they can evaluate the facts on their own, instead of being persuaded one way or the other.

  2. I agree with what’s been said in that the Politico article definitely feels quite objective whereas the New York Times piece has at least a slight bias against DeVos – although I think including the Corey Mock story made the piece a little more objective by playing into something more in DeVos’s favour.

    I think in terms of the Rolling Stone piece, not following up on anything to do with story was just negligible. Sexual Assault is obviously a sensitive topic, which makes it even more important that pieces published about it are accurate.

    One of the biggest problems I personally feel about a lot of these stories and in particular with the message that DeVos is preaching is that it’s entertaining the idea that false accusations are the majority which really invalidates a lot of these cases. The reality is that false accusations are quite rare – I think one study suggested it was something like less than 5% of cases (something I would definitely fact check before putting in an article). Using the quote from DeVos’s Civil Rights official Candice Jackson suggesting that 90% of these accusations are drunken mistakes is entirely misleading and problematic. I think objectivity is extremely important, but playing into the ideas about the prevalence of false accusations is not being objective, it’s simply misleading.

  3. Since sexual assault is such a sensitive subject, I believe it is the role of the journalist to not dismiss the victims or accused sides but to rather point to statistics and narratives of both sides. It is a fact that sexual assault is prevalent on campuses and it is important to point to statistics showing how big of a problem it is. In this way the victims can see that the journalist recognize the issue and are not dismissing it in any way. It is also important for the journalist to provide accurate information about those accused of sexual assault without blaming the victim in unresolved cases. I thought that the NY times article effectively pathos to put light to the side of the story that is sometimes ignored, the accused. Describing how an accused student tried to kill himself because he thought his future was gone allowed the reader to see how unfairly balanced investigative practices can be destructive to both sides of the issue. Although the NY times article was focused on the accused, it also provided statistics of the victims which helped to ease any bias. Since sexual assault is such a sensitive subject it is important that statistics given are not misleading and accurately represent the issue of rape culture on college campuses.

  4. I agree with the differences you mentioned about the two articles. The NYT article, in my mind, was more descriptive as the journalist went directly to the schools and the people in order to incorporate some sort of emotion into this piece. I feel that more personalized quotes in a news article like this adds to the descriptiveness and the over all meaning of the article. The “why am I writing this.” The Politico article seemed to be lacking as much of this. I also feel as if the NYT article had more statistics, which added to the descriptiveness and message.

    To answer some of your questions, whether it is up to the journalist to protect victims or keep questioning situations in order to fact check? I think that each case is individualized. Whether the journalist is trying to report a story without biased then he or she should be less focused on stories at the personal. On the other hand if the journalist is has a message that he or she is trying to convey, then connecting personal stories into a news article will add description and emotion.

  5. In any article, emotion is important in capturing the attention of the audience. In reference to sexual assault articles, I feel as if it is even more important in order to fully grasp the emotional implications it has put on both survivor and perpetrator. Usually the perpetrator is less likely to comment due to public backlash, but each person involved within the event should be offered an interview. For the anonymity, the Michigan Daily has a Survivor Speak Series where writers can submit anonymously as long as three Daily Staff Members (who are the editors) know the identity of the writer. I think something similar could be done with these stories, as the name is not as important as the story. For obvious reasons, a survivor may not want their name being publicly displayed, and there are easy solutions. I do not think it is the job of the reporter to fact check the story of the survivor. It is their words that they are quoting, so there is no reason to be concerned about its validity. I think mental health needs to be taken into account when interviewing someone who says they were sexually assaulted. You would not question someone giving a personal account of a traumatic event in any other scenario, so the same rules should apply with journalism here.

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