The Importance of Teaching Student Journalists How to Cover Sexual Assault

What’s the best way to ask a student who’s been sexually assaulted for an interview?

How can a student journalist cover sexual assault in a way that does not put their publication at legal risk?

How can a student journalist get corroboration from a traumatized survivor?

These were some of the excellent questions asked by student journalists at the “Covering Campus Sexual Assault” workshop at the College Media Association’s Spring National College Media Convention held March 13 in New York City.

I was honored to help teach the workshop, co-sponsored by The Hunting Ground, along with Investigative Reporters & Editors. It featured some of the top experts in the field of campus sexual assault: ESPN Investigative Reporter Paula LaVigne, Center for Public Integrity Senior Reporter Kristen Lombardi, ESPN Investigative Producer Nicole Noren, Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma Research Director Elana Newman, and Sofie Karasek, Director of Education and co-founder of End Rape on Campus, as well as a brave survivor, “Anna.”

Together this amazing team and I fielded questions and shared our experiences of covering campus sexual assault stories in a series of interactive panel presentations. Everyone was so engaged the time seemed to fly by.

The workshop provided a thorough blueprint for college students on how to responsibly report on campus sexual assault, including how to investigate stories, how to interact with survivors and how to handle many of the complex factors that affect coverage of campus sexual assault, including dealing with anxious administrators and the challenges of obtaining records from a private school.

It was a real eye-opener as to the challenges faced by these students who are usually the first to hear of problems on their campus and whose reporting can make a real difference in raising awareness of this issue.

More than 50 students from public and private colleges and universities around the country attended the workshop, asking probing questions and engaging all of us in thoughtful dialogue. The conversations delved into complicated issues, including:

• What can a student journalist do if their school threatens to shut down their publication for covering campus assaults?

• What factors should a student journalist consider when reporting on student survivors who are also undocumented immigrants?

• How does a student journalist find survivors to interview?

• What’s the best way to approach campus administrators for an interview?

• What exactly is the Clery Law?

• How do you establish credibility with a source if you’re a beginner at a new student media publication with no reputation or track record?

The workshop may be over, but the faces of all those earnest students remains in my memory. I hope that working journalists everywhere who cover the ever-increasingly complicated issue of sexual assault reach out to their local college or university and offer to help mentor a student journalist. That time would be a worthwhile investment.

ESPN’s Nicole Noren agreed and said she enjoyed the entire experience.

“It’s inspiring to get a chance to interact with other journalists who share a passion for covering this subject matter,” Noren said. “To be able to discuss our experiences covering this topic with the younger generation of journalists was really rewarding. This subject is incredibly important for young journalists to cover and discuss, but it needs to be done right, there’s too much at stake to get it wrong.”

Kristen Lombardi summed it up well when she emailed this to me afterward: “There are some topics you cover as a journalist that never leave your heart; as difficult as this topic is, it is one such topic for me.”

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