3 takeaways for covering sexual assaults on campus

April 6, 2015

In this time of media self-reflection about coverage of sexual assaults, it is worth remembering the consensus amidst the controversy over the Rolling Stone campus rape piece. Three points, in particular, come to mind in the wake of discussion.

First, no one can credibly suggest today that concern about sexual assault and other gender-based misconduct on college campuses is unwarranted. Indeed, the issue until recently might best have been characterized as a dramatic case of underreporting, where serious problems existed but could not break into the national, or even the local, news.

Second, the combination of media coverage, student activism, and a new generation of leadership in higher education and in politics has prompted an important increase in resources. Schools have expanded counseling and crisis center staff, strengthened their enforcement efforts, and enhanced prevention training.

And finally, a new frame focused on creating a culture of prevention has enhanced traditional debates about who bears responsibility for preventing sexual assault. Even the name of the White House public awareness campaign – “It’s On Us” – powerfully makes the point, as do bystander intervention programs at colleges around the country.

In a related dimension of culture change, more college administrators are speaking forthrightly about the issue than ever before. Take Back the Night marches and other events that have been a staple on many campuses dating back to the 1980s now receive high-level attention and promotion as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month activities each April.

The message of intolerance for sexual violence embraced by pockets of professional sports leagues is also starting to reverberate in some college sports. The N.C.A.A. and several other athletic conferences became partners in the It’s On Us campaign along with a growing number of athletics departments nationwide.

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These developments, along with new federal guidelines, have substantially transformed the environment from what it was years ago, when there were fewer resources dedicated to prevention or to investigation and discipline. In fact, considerable changes have continued even since the beginning of this academic year.

To be sure, the rapid-fire growth in attention, resources, and pro-prevention messaging does not mean that the “story” is over. But taking meaningful account of these changes while also investigating ongoing problems will be important for media coverage going forward.

Indeed, an important next question will be how higher education institutions continue to strengthen and refine their resources and disciplinary processes in light of implementation experience and new research. For prevention, especially, more needs to be known not only about the prevalence of sexual assault but also about how best to structure and strengthen campus-wide efforts. Here, we are not in a world of known solutions. While some research is underway and much more data will be forthcoming, the existing research is hardly definitive.

Even the White House’s extended analysis of the academic literature reveals that much more can be done to determine which types of prevention interventions will be effective in higher education environments. And given the diversity of student bodies and campus cultures, this, too, will vary at institutions throughout the country.

And while enhancing policies and qualifications for disciplinary proceeding participants is unquestionably important – for students on both sides of these cases – the issues in individual cases can be complex. Insuring fairness amidst this complexity remains among schools’ paramount responsibilities and among the subjects that will continue to attract media review.

Yet one feature relevant to media coverage of campus discipline will remain relatively fixed. College and university administrations will not typically speak about individual cases, whether they’re asked about the evidence presented in the adjudication process or the factors that led to a particular disciplinary determination.

This commitment not to comment remains even when students or others share their competing accounts of what occurred and whether a college or university handled a given case well or poorly. Why? One might reasonably think that higher education institutions, whose mission is to educate and to “produce knowledge,” would want to add their insights to these public conversations.

The oft-cited reason is FERPA, the Federal Educational Records Privacy Act, which places constraints on information that schools can share about their students, including facts related to disciplinary charges and proceedings.

But there is another important reason for schools not to discuss individual cases. Students who need help are less likely to seek out campus resources if they think their college or university might one day comment on them in public forums or to reporters. Students already face many unofficial barriers to seeking out a campus rape crisis center or deciding to file a disciplinary complaint. Fears that their classmates or professors will find out what happened, or worry that information about their experience will “go public” on social media, are stoked by the stubborn persistence of stigma associated with sexual violence.

Suzanne Goldberg is Executive Vice President for University Life at Columbia University and Director of Columbia Law School’s Center for Gender & Sexuality Law.