Do you fact-check a campus rape survivor?

By Martine Powers

In 2008 Kristen Lombardi, a journalist with the Center for Public Integrity, embarked on a series of interviews with one goal in mind: To reveal the wrongdoings of college campus administrators who failed to support rape victims and allowed their assailants to graduate with minor punishments.

On college campuses throughout America, sexual assault has become an increasingly high-profile topic of discussion and protest — and the issue has made headlines in national news outlets and campus newspapers alike.  Credit: Wolfram Burner

On college campuses throughout America, sexual assault has become an increasingly high-profile topic of discussion and protest — and the issue has made headlines in national news outlets and campus newspapers alike. Credit: Wolfram Burner

The seasoned investigative reporter interviewed dozens of young women — in many cases, three or four or five times. Through hours of conversations, she slowly peeled back each student’s story and the layers of trauma that each had endured.

At first, Lombardi just listened, allowing the women to share their experiences at their own pace and on their own terms, with few questions and no interruptions. In later interviews, she circled back to hone in on the hazier parts of the story, pressing for details and painstaking explanations. Finally, she arrived at the tough questions, the ones she knew would be awkward and uncomfortable. She asked them about details they omitted from their stories, or inconsistencies between what they said and what they told police in reports. She asked them about drinking, and how much that could have clouded their judgment or their memories. She asked them to respond to the explanations provided by their alleged assailants.

“It’s difficult to ask those questions, because implied in your question is doubt,” Lombardi recalled in a recent interview. “That line of questioning can seem very ‘blame the victim,’ and people immediately get defensive.”

“But,” she added, “you have to ask the question. Never did I not ask a question I wanted to ask.”

For journalists who cover the controversial issue of campus sexual assault, the process of interviewing rape survivors can bring about a clash of central journalistic tenets. In our reporting — and especially in investigative reporting — we seek to “comfort the afflicted” and “give a voice to the voiceless,” to bolster those without power and highlight injustices performed by the powerful.

But another central tenet of journalism requires us to exercise constant skepticism and to be scrupulous about verifying and proving every fact and detail.

It’s a difficult line to toe, because the stigma of sexual assault remains endemic. Only 5 percent of rape incidents ever come to light, some studies say; underreporting is a much more rampant problem than false allegations. Victims often feel shame and guilt after such a crime, despite the fact that they have done no wrong — and that is coupled with the fact that they often face disbelief from friends, family, or law enforcement when they report a crime. Even as part of an act of journalism, expressing doubt or skepticism about allegations of assault can feel like another act of injustice dealt to a person already suffering from trauma.

And yet, the accusations made against alleged perpetrators are so grave, they warrant some kind of proof — or at least, that’s the rationalization of many news organizations that have grappled with these stories in recent years.

In 2012, the New York Times reported on accusations of sexual assault that had been made against Yale’s beloved star quarterback Patrick Witt — a student who had made national headlines when he passed up on an opportunity to compete for a Rhodes Scholarship because the mandatory interview coincided with his final Harvard-Yale football game. It was assumed at the time that he had removed himself from the running because of duty to his team; the Times alleged that his decision was in response to the assault accusations. The Yale Daily News caught flak for failing to report on the issue; the newspaper argued that the victim had sought confidentiality by filing an informal complaint, and “because the nature of the complaint meant that all its details remain allegations, the News chose not to print a story,” editor-in-chief Max de la Bruyere wrote in a letter to readers.

The New York Times‘ more confrontational tack — based largely on anonymous sources — was similarly maligned, because no charges had been filed, there was no criminal investigation, and Witt’s accuser never spoke to the Times.

“Good call, Newspaper of Record,” wrote one columnist for the New England Sports Network. “If Witt is a violent sexual predator, who needs all that messy ‘official records’ stuff? Witt might be guilty, but this is an irresponsible way to sully the reputation of a person who is entitled to a presumption of innocence.”

At Columbia earlier this year, the student-run Bwog was lambasted for waiting five days before reporting on campus flyers that listed the names of students accused of sexual assault. (The issue was further complicated because one of those names belonged to a Bwog staffer.) The staff defended their decision in a post: “The desire to be responsible and not start a witch hunt… are [among] the reasons that the uncensored list will never be published,” they wrote, adding that “perhaps writing this list (and publishing the work of a campus ‘vigilante’) is not the best way to create a safer campus environment for victims.”

It was a controversial decision. “There is such a hesitancy to call out perpetrators for wrongdoing,” said Dana Bolger, co-founder and co-director of Know Your IX, an organization working to end campus sexual assault and raise awareness about Title IX. “And there’s such a ferocity with which victims are blamed, doubted, and attacked.”

And yet, journalists are faced with a grim reality: Once in a while, on rare occasions, people lie — often for reasons that defy explanation. We hear the industry horror stories and shake our heads: Countless news organizations have been duped by people who feigned pasts as Holocaust survivors, or once-homeless drug addicts, or refugees from conflicts in far-flung countries.

“The challenge is to feel passion and outrage without losing your skepticism,” acclaimed New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof told students in an online workshop in 2011. “Over the years, for example, I’ve learned that victims of human rights abuses lie and exaggerate as much as perpetrators do. It’s very easy if you’re passionate and outraged to listen to victims and not double-check and triple-check and listen to the other side.”

Even Kristof is not immune to the tendency to believe sympathetic stories. Over the years, his journalism has lauded Somaly Mam, a Cambodian woman whose career as a human rights advocate was based on the credibility she gained as a supposed survivor of childhood sex trafficking. Recently, reports surfaced that disproved Mam’s alleged past.

“This is why heroes are potentially dangerous turf for journalists. We, too, can be wooed by aura and charisma, turning from healthy skeptics to worshipers,” wrote journalist Karen Coates in the Columbia Journalism Review about the Somaly Mam case. “Our belief in heroes can endanger our allegiance to truth.”

But Coates also acknowledges: “Many personal stories of injustice are true, and to ignore them would defy our journalistic duties as well.”

If we rely only on instances of trauma that are proven beyond doubt through documentation, we risk missing out on important stories. Know Your IX’s Dana Bolger, a recent graduate of Amherst College and a survivor of campus sexual assault, said she knows how it feels to have her story questioned by a reporter — and, in some interview situations, the feeling of wishing she hadn’t chosen to share her story with the reporter at all, especially when they push for proof and documents.

“Whether it’s intentional or not, it feels almost automatically like you’re being disbelieved and doubted, and a lot of us are really accustomed to being disbelieved and doubted,” Bolger said. “It’s frightening. It takes a lot of trust to come forward and hand over your story for someone to tell in this very public way …To have them ask you for proof makes you doubt whether they are actually going to do it in way that feels safe.”

And, she warned, our stereotypes of rape victims can also affect who the media chooses to interview — and how likely they are to be believed without further question. Bolger, who is white, said she knows that stereotypes of black and Hispanic women mean that victims from those backgrounds have an ever harder time of garnering credibility in public spaces.

“As a white woman, I am sort of seen as innocent and naive in a way that women of color often aren’t,” she said. “People, reporters included, are more likely to see me as an innocent victim. I am more believable than other survivors.”

It’s a situation also faced by John Kelly, a 21-year-old senior at Tufts University and a coordinator for Know Your IX. Because he is a male survivor of sexual assault, he said, people — particularly journalists — have been skeptical of his story or wary about its veracity. He has a tough time understanding why reporters would think that a person would lie about such experiences — “Talking about this isn’t fun. We’re not getting a kick out of it,” he said — but that is the attitude he had faced in the past.

“Once I said that my assailant was punished [by campus administrators], I sort of got let off the hook in some ways,” Kelly explained. “But I very much got the sense that if it hadn’t happened that way, I probably wouldn’t have ended up in the interview. And most people who go through the process don’t have that kind of support for their story.”

Kelly felt that his story was worth sharing, because the idea of a male victim of sexual assault challenged cookie-cutter assumptions. So when journalists came knocking, he felt pressure to share documents on his case with journalists, and to offer proof, even if he didn’t feel wholly comfortable handing off files with such personal details.

“It didn’t feel great, but I was struggling to get my story published, and struggling to get people to feature me in stories,” Kelly recalled. “If a reporter was possibly going to feature my perspective, I would do everything I could do to keep myself in the story.”

But this need for documents is critical to reporting, and critical to making reporters such as Lombardi confident in their story. In a 2009 interview with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, she talked about her aggressive pursuit of any kind of files to corroborate students’ testimonies.

“A lot of students thought they would just tell me their story and that’s all I would need,” Lombardi told the Dart Center. “But I needed documents. I needed to corroborate what they were saying, and, if I was going to feature their cases, I needed people who were comfortable with me filing records requests for their judicial file, talking to the school officials, signing waivers granting permission so the school officials would talk to me. I needed them knowing I was going to go to the accused student … At that point it became clear who was comfortable with that kind of reporting and who wasn’t. Our top cases were only those people who were comfortable.”

Lombardi told me that she tried to temper her adamant requests for students’ documents with sensitivity in other ways: In a decision she agonized over, she sometimes allowed sexual assault survivors to read their quotes before publication — and in one or two cases, to read the part of the finished story that centered on the student’s experiences. “It allowed her to be mentally prepared for the rest of the world knowing what happened to her,” Lombardi said. “I never do that, sharing a section of a story. But in these situations where you’re dealing with such vulnerable people, if somebody asks, I find it very hard to rationalize why people can’t see it.”

In one of these instances, the student read the section of Lombardi’s story. And the young woman was devastated.

“The student was upset that I quoted her alleged perpetrator’s statement,” Lombardi recalled. “I’d quoted what he said at the hearing, since he refused to talk to me, but she thought I was giving him a voice, somehow I was believing him over her.”

The student said she worried that the story would lead others to doubt her case — and she wondered whether Lombardi believed her assailant’s story over her own. The young woman cried, and she said she regretted ever agreeing to be interviewed. But Lombardi explained her reasoning for including both sides, and after the story was published, the student said she was proud of her role in the final product.

“It was a difficult conversation. It really put me in a position where I really had to articulate why it was important to have this voice, to quote those documents,” Lombardi said. “I had to explain — producing a fair story that allows for all voices to be heard is not the same thing as believing one person over another.”

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