Part I: Ethics of Reporting on Sexual Assault
Reporting on sexual assault in an ethical way, without causing further harm to victims or failing to confirm facts, is an issue that journalists have constantly struggled with. In recent years, the topic has come to the forefront of national conversation several times as victims’ rights advocates try to change the way that rape is discussed and perceived. When done well, a story about a rape or injustice in prosecuting a sexual assault can come to the forefront of national discussion and make people think about the issue in a critical way. When done wrong, as in the case of the infamous Rolling Stone article, it can set the cause back by reinforcing a false narrative of survivors as liars.
In reporting on cases of sexual assault, there are multiple legal and ethical considerations that journalists and editors must make.
“Most of the time, people don’t make sexual abuse allegations as some sort of a prank or as a way to get back at people,” said Scott Allen, an editor for the Spotlight investigative reporting team at the Boston Globe. “But when someone levels a claim of sexual abuse, it’s something that you want to take seriously and hear them out…You have an inclination to think there’s something to a person’s allegations, but you have to see evidence [to report it].”
The primary duty of a journalist reporting on sensitive issues is to tell the truth. This duty, however, can come into conflict with a reporter’s desire to not cause harm to the victim. Questioning the victim or trying to contact their accuser may cause the survivor to lose trust in a reporter, so confirming a story has to be pursued delicately, and the survivor should be told that a reporter will need to confirm his or her story.
“Obviously, the front line is, did they report this [attack] to school officials, police, or government officials at any point,” Allen said. “Did they file a civil lawsuit, do they have any kind of physical evidence like letters that went back and forth…did you tell your friends?”
Any these factors, or a combination of them, can help a reporter ensure that the story they’re hearing is plausible and that they haven’t happened upon one of the few people who exaggerate or fabricate a story of assault.
Once a journalist is sure that the victim’s tale is plausible and that they can back up their reporting process if called into question, they have other issues to consider – for example, if they’re legally protected from a libel suit.
“The bottom line is, if a lawsuit is filed, on a legal level that is considered privileged and therefore you could use anything in that lawsuit,” said Jonathan Saltzman, a Boston Globe reporter who worked on a recent investigation into sexual abuse at New England private schools. “It’s protected, and therefore there’s no problem using any of it from a legal perspective.”
Without lawsuits or other documentation that a crime was reported, Saltzman said, journalists should look for other victims or independent corroboration before reporting on sensitive cases.
“This isn’t a perfect world,” Allen said. “There are sometimes you know in your gut that you have it, but you don’t have the corroboration and you have to back away.”
Another issue that frequently emerges is whether to name the survivor of a sexual assault or the alleged perpetrator. The Boston Globe, like most newspapers, doesn’t report the name of a rape victim unless she or he gives permission.
“Again, if someone is named in a lawsuit, you are legally protected,” Saltzman said. “But then there’s the journalistic question: When should you use the name? When is it fair to use the name of an alleged assailant and when do you think it might not be wise to do that.”
That decision is up to the individual journalist and editor and individual case, but in general, the journalist’s duty to minimize harm is clashing with the right of the public to know about an alleged assailant. If the claim turns out to be false, there’s an article online calling an innocent man or woman a rapist, but if it’s true and the newspaper decides to not name the perpetrator, they’re keeping an essential fact of the case from the reader.
In the case of a sexual assault story, there are multiple stakeholders that a journalist has to consider: the survivor, the alleged (or convicted) assailant, their friends and families, the reader, any institutions (such as universities or schools) involved, and anyone else quoted in the story. Although a journalist’s first duty should be to report the truth to the reader, they need to consider all these stakeholders when deciding what to include in terms of names and details.
“I think with these issues, there’s two standards,” Saltzman said. “There’s the legal standard and the journalistic question. The legal standard in these situations are very clear, but the journalistic question you have to decide on a case-by-case basis.”
Ethically, reporters should consider two classic ethical theories when reporting on sexual assault: utilitarianism and the Golden Mean. In utilitarianism, an ethicist looks at the outcome of an action rather and its effect on others rather than only what is legally right and wrong. Using this type of thinking, rather than deontology, which focuses on rules-based thinking, a journalist should think of the potential effects of the article on each of the potential stakeholders and weigh if the public’s need to know offsets potential harm. Journalists should also be willing to follow the Golden Mean. Although they can’t exactly follow the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “Don’t do any harm”), they can follow the middle way between extremes and minimize harm while still reporting the truth.
Part II: Case Study of The Huntington News
“Student files lawsuit against Northeastern” read the headline of a story that took up a larger-than-normal portion of the front page of the Huntington News, Northeastern University’s independent student-run newspaper, on Tuesday, Nov. 1. The 2,400-word article detailed a lawsuit filed a day earlier by a student alleging that the school had mishandled her sexual assault case. As the managing editor of the paper, I was heavily involved in the reporting and editing of the story, which was by far our most popular ever. The online version has gotten over 26,000 views to date – seven percent of total site views for 2016. A team of five student staff members, including me, worked on the article, and we faced numerous ethical challenges while reporting, writing, and editing.
We first began working on the story about a month before publication, when the a student reached out to Rachel Morford, the co-news editor at the time, and told her about a lawsuit she was filing against the university. In subsequent meetings, Morford interviewed the student and talked to her lawyers, who told us that the lawsuit would be filed by the end of October. The editor-in-chief, Sam Haas, opinions editor, Rowan Walrath, and I made the decision to not do further reporting until we had all the details of the lawsuit – in other words, until the lawsuit was filed. We knew that this was probably a story we would want to report, and with an official lawsuit being filed, we wouldn’t run into the problems of the Rolling Stone case – we would have an official document to cite and quote, instead of only the story of a student. Throughout this process, we talked to the student multiple times to understand her story as fully as we could.
We received word that the lawsuit had been filed in Suffolk Superior Court in the afternoon of Monday, Oct. 31, but were unable to get a copy from the courthouse until the next day. We had a copy from the student’s lawyers, however. This presented us with another choice: whether to go ahead and publish a short brief that night without an official copy of the lawsuit, or whether to wait. Ultimately, we decided to wait until we had absolute proof that a lawsuit had been filed before publishing the story, for which majority of the writing was done by Walrath.
Besides guaranteeing we were clear legally, ethically we wanted to ensure that we had time to reach out to all the people named in the lawsuit and give them a chance to respond. By the time we had a copy, it was getting late and there wouldn’t have been enough time to allow everyone to get back to us. In addition, we were afraid that, if we were to publish an early brief with only basic information, that would be the story to get everyone’s attention, and a longer-form follow-up piece with more balance wouldn’t get as many readers. This, we decided, wouldn’t be fair to the story, the readers, or those involved, so ultimately we waited to publish anything until we had written a complete piece and given everyone a chance to respond.
The lawsuit itself presented us with most of the ethical questions that we had to consider throughout our reporting process. In addition to Northeastern University, it named five administrators as defendants. In simple terms, the lawsuit alleged that the system at Northeastern had failed to properly protect the student from sexual assault due to the fact that she and the alleged perpetrator, both underage, had been drinking in an RA’s apartment before the incident, and that a proctor had allowed the perpetrator to sign her into their building although she was obviously intoxicated. The suit also alleged that the system that Northeastern used to investigate the student’s claims was flawed and administrators didn’t follow protocol.
We had to decide whether to name the people identified in the lawsuit: the complainant, administrators, alleged perpetrator, and the RA at whose apartment the two students had been drinking.
First, we reached out to all of these people, asking for comment and informing them that we might be naming them. In the case of the student, she was very clear from the beginning that she wanted to be named in our article. Morford talked to her several times to make sure she was sure of this, even if we decided not to name the alleged perpetrator, and she was very clear that she wanted her name in the story. All the administrators that we contacted referred us to the external affairs department of the university, and one named defendant who no longer worked at the university also did not return requests to comment. We ultimately decided to name them in the article because they were named as defendants in the case.
We decided not to name the alleged perpetrator and the RA at whose apartment the students had been drinking for several reasons. In the RA’s case, she hadn’t been named as a defendant in the lawsuit, and while we managed to contact her, she decided not to comment on the case. In this case, we decided that her identity wasn’t really a matter of the public’s need to know: there wasn’t a public benefit to us publishing the name of a young woman who had thrown an underage party, even if she was an RA at the time. The potential harm to her, we decided, was greater than the public benefit. The alleged perpetrator also refused to comment when we reached him, and since he had never been arrested or charged for the crime, and had been found not responsible by the Office of Student Conduct & Conflict Resolution student board, we decided that we didn’t feel comfortable, ethically, naming him as the potential perpetrator of a crime. Later, his lawyer called us and confirmed that he had been involved in the case and tried by the student conduct board, which made us more confident that the survivor’s story had elements of truth.
We also weighed how much of a voice to give the survivor in the story. We didn’t want to seem biased in her favor, but all the of the information we had was from her perspective. We settled on using a few select quotes from our interview with her, while basing most of the story on the lawsuit and a few quotes from her lawyers. We knew we couldn’t tell the other side of the story without the alleged perpetrator agreeing to speak to us, but we did our best to use the lawsuit as the basis of our storytelling, rather than our interviews with the victim.
None of these decisions were made lightly, but discussed at length amongst the reporters and editors involved. We asked three journalism mentors with experience in the industry to weigh in on the legal and ethical questions we were wrestling with, to ensure we weren’t missing anything and to provide advice on what the best practices might be. Ultimately, however, it was up to us as a group to make the choices that we did.
Part III: Lessons Learned by The News
In the end, I’m very proud of the story The Huntington News turned out. I think it was by far the strongest of the stories that have come out about the case so far. We made similar ethical decisions to the Boston Globe and other outlets who didn’t name the alleged perpetrator. The Globe, however, chose not to name the administrators named in the lawsuit, which is a decision that I think we could have discussed more as a group – naming the defendants was something we decided on quickly and early, and I think we could have considered the implications a bit more. Another outlet, NECN, posted scans of the lawsuit in full to accompany their story, so readers could easily find out the publically-available name of the alleged assailant and everyone else named in the document. Ultimately, I’m happy with the decision we made not to do something similar, because it would essentially have been the same thing as us naming them in the text of the story.
Taking Northeastern University’s Journalism Ethics course definitely helped me in the course of reporting this story. Several weeks before, I wrote a personal ethics code for the class, focusing on what I wanted to keep in mind as a reporter, and I kept this and the class’ case studies in mind while editing the piece.
In class, we discussed how The News and other student journalism outlets, might benefit from having a similar code or standardized ethical decision making process. However, this was the first time we reported on a lawsuit at The News during my tenure, and other stories in which we’ve had ethical considerations have been entirely different. If reporting on cases like this comes up again, I think The News might want to consider formalizing an ethical decision-making checklist or code of conduct, but as it is, each case is so unique that I’m not sure how much one would help. The staff did a tremendous job considering the implications of every action without a formal code and with only one person (me) who had taken a journalism ethics course.
As the case goes forward and The Huntington News passes to a new staff and editorial board, I’m confident that the student journalists will be able to make ethical decisions in the years to come, and will continue reporting on this particular case in a nuanced and thoughtful manner.