March 24, 2015

WHY THE MEDIA CAN’T COVER SEXUAL ASSAULT: A concerned journalist who asks anonymity writes:

You might be interesting in this Tip Sheet from Columbia’s Dart Center:

Note how from the very first paragraph the tip sheet assumes that anyone making a complaint is a “survivor,” not an “alleged victim” or other neutral language.

Nowhere do these guidelines say “Be sure to give the alleged perpetrator or his/her representatives a chance to respond to the allegations.”

But they do say:

“Listening is important. Make sure to allow ample time for the source to tell you their story. Don’t rush them. Don’t press for details if they are not willing. Allow them to tell you what they feel comfortable talking about.”

The closest the document comes to saying “Check the facts!” is this:

“Corroborate information. Be aware that accounts of what happened may not be entirely accurate as trauma can impact a person’s memory. A person may forget details or misremember due to the psychological effects of the trauma. Be sure to corroborate your information with other sources to the extent possible.”

But note how any discrepancies in an account of an assault are pre-judged to be the result of that assault, the reality of which is not to be questioned.

One could argue that Sabrina Rubin Erdely followed these guidelines in her Rolling Stone piece. She only corroborated the facts in the story to the extent that they would not upset her “survivor.”

Columbia Journalism School is the institution investigating that Rolling Stone piece. Fortunately, Steve Coll, dean of the school, is a first-rate journalist. Hopefully, they will produce a solid report—and then circle back to take another look at their own guidelines for reporting these stories.

Well, we’ll see.

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