Dan Kennedy took over our ethics class the past few weeks and it has been both refreshing and interesting to have a new perspective and voice on the topic. During this time, we touched upon a variety of dilemmas and subjects such as the algorithms used by social media giants like Facebook, media ownership and of course, the presidential election. He brought in guest speakers like Seth Gitell and Susan Ryan-Vollmar to discuss PR ethics and the role of LGBTQ media respectively.
But one discussion stuck with me the most — a sexual assault case reported by the Huntington News.
To be clear, the article (which I thought was very well-executed) wasn’t about the actual incident itself. While it did include information surrounding what allegedly happened, it focused more on the legal case being brought against Northeastern by student Morgan Helfman. As the Huntington News reports, Helfman is bringing suit because she feels that “the university mishandled the campus proceedings that found a fellow student not responsible for allegedly raping her, according to court documents.”
Sexaul assault is undoubtedly a territory that needs to be tread carefully by any reporter. It is critical to note that if a victim approaches you with a rape story, it’s a fine line between being compassionate to the victim but to also not automatically assume guilt of the accused assailant. What publication wants to find themselves in the position of the Rolling Stone and the aftermath of its debunked UVA story.
The first issue that was raised was the Huntington News’s choice to reveal the victim’s name and not the accused. I’ll start off by saying I agree with the publication’s choice to protect the identity of the alleged attacker but was surprised the victim’s name, Morgan Helfman, was included. Elise Harmon, the managing editor of the paper and fellow classmate, explained that the staff did consistently check in with Helfman about her choice but was adamant in having her name out there. Like I said, I do agree with the decision to not release the name of who Helfman said was her rapist for a multitude of reasons but mostly because he was found not responsible by the Office of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution (OSSCR). It’s worth noting that the Boston Globe made the same decision to protect the accused, but another publication — which I will not name — made a different decision to scan the court documents, which does include the male student’s name. It is equally important to note that his name is “fair game” as it is part of public documents that anyone can access, but it’s at the discretion of each publication to publish it or not.
Another interesting issue posed by Professor Kennedy is the trigger warning which read,
TRIGGER WARNING: This story contains material which may be upsetting or harmful to survivors of sexual violence.
He asked the class if we felt that warning, along with the list of available resources at the end of the article, implied automatic guilt or not. That had never crossed my mind before but I don’t think it did. In fact, I think it would have been careless for them not to include both a warning and available resources. Campus rape is a real issue and there are people who are directly and indirectly affected by it and I think it’s important to consider how they may be affected and how they can seek help. From what I gathered, there was a consensus everyone felt that was the norm and standard practice in the industry.
There’s certainly a treasure trove of ethical issues when reporting on sexual assault but here are a few considerations and guidelines I think can help ease the process:
- Like any story, verification is most important. It’s difficult to break out of the he-said-she-said cycle but a lack of verification can land you in a lot of trouble. A good place to start is to check in with both the victim and the one being accused.
- Identify the stakeholders and be considerate of the individuals involved.
- The legal system is operates on the notion “innocent until proven guilty” and I think it’s important to be respectful of that when reporting on sexual violence (or really any legal-related matter).
I want to wrap up this post by saying: I was very aware of the words I was using to describe who Helfman was accusing. I used terms like “alleged attacker” and “rapist,” both of which tend to have a strong, negative connotation. I hope that I did not come off as implying guilt. This does not mean I think she is lying but while I deeply and wholeheartedly sympathize with those affected by sexual violence, I also strongly believe that there needs to be protection for the other side as well.