Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Anatomy of a news story: Sexual assault on campus

If you’ve read my recent story on sexual assault reporting on the Whitman campus, you might be wondering what goes into writing an article like this. The short answer is: a lot of work. Here’s a peek behind the curtain of the Pio‘s investigative reporting team.

First, the story idea. This article was inspired by a comment in our suggestion box asking us to do a piece about rape culture on campus. I’d written about rape previously on my blog and thought it would be an interesting issue to tackle. My first step was to send out emails to groups on campus who I thought might be interested in participating in the article––FACE (the feminist group), Voices of Planned Parenthood, Green Dot––and see if anyone was willing to speak to me. Once I’d gathered enough students from these sources to feel confident that I had an article, I broadened my call to the general student listserv. I also asked friends in fraternities to send out emails asking men to speak with me, either about their own experiences or their general thoughts and impressions of Whitman’s policy.

I spent about a week and a half conducting in-depth interviews with nine female students who had been sexually assaulted and three male students who wanted to share their general thoughts about consent with me. It got a little exhausting, especially since I often scheduled four interviews for the same evening. I did spend a few afternoons curled up in a ball and losing my faith in humanity, but a wonderful team of Pio editors and friends helped keep me grounded and reminded me that each story I heard was another reason to keep working on the article.

All the stories I heard from my sources fit into the female victim/male perpetrator model, which does make statistical sense (about 12% of rape victims are male according to the Department of Justice, as are 90+% of perpetrators, depending on who you ask), but left me with less diversity than I had ideally hoped for in terms of experiences. The article has since drawn a few comments suggesting that the gender representation in it is unbalanced––a claim I can’t dispute. Bias in this regard is unfortunately a part of doing journalism, particularly investigative pieces on a small college campus. Thought I try to be cognizant of the complexities of the issues I’m writing about, my articles will necessarily be framed and shaped by the stories I have available to work with.

After speaking with all of my student sources, it became clear to me that I was dealing with two entirely separate stories. One was the piece I had originally envisioned: a feature exploring consent and sexual assault on campus. The other was a much harder-hitting news story based primarily off of Zoe’s experience with Whitman’s official process.

The next step, once I had my student stories, was to do some research. I had printouts of Whitman’s current sexual misconduct policy and Washington State laws pertaining to rape. I also read the policies of about fifteen other schools, focusing on their definitions of consent and the sections talking about alcohol use. The issues that came up in my interviews helped me write a survey about consent and sexual assault on campus, which about 375 people took (thanks everyone!)

Facts and laws in hand, I interviewed the Whitman administration over the course of a week, focusing on their views of the current policy and its specific requirements with regard to police reporting. Barbara Maxwell suggested I talk to Chalese Rabidue, the victims’ advocate at the Walla Walla Police Department, and Chalese had me sit down with her and Detective Miguel Sanchez. That interview confirmed what I had heard from several students: that Whitman was not doing enough, at least in many people’s eyes, to make sure that sexual assaults were being handled by the police. I left feeling gratified, and also much more solid in my conception of the news piece, since the police comments would serve as a thread tying Zoe and Ellie’s stories to a broader point about Whitman’s ability to investigate rape.

From here, it was a matter of simply writing the articles. The Circuit piece on consent and alcohol was actually written first, though it was published a week later. Given the timing, I was glad to see that the Circuit article ended up addressing a number of the questions some students raised in the comments on the original news story.

The news piece on rape was challenging to write because of the sheer quantity of information I was dealing with. The transcript of Zoe’s interview alone was 3747 words, or about seven single-spaces pages. By the time I was done, the article was almost 3000 words long––a big step up from a normal Pio article (around 600-700) or even my previous investigate pieces (generally 1500-2000). Fortunately, the talented production team was able to make it fit, in part by giving me the entire front page, which looked nice and dramatic.

We chose not to run the story with a graphic, since it seemed unlikely that we would find anything to illustrate rape that would grab the reader’s attention without being insensitive to survivors of sexual assault. Instead, we decided to tweak our normal front page layout a bit to make it eye-catching. Production Manager Ted Hendershot moved teasers to the bottom of the page and ran the story across four column (instead of our usual five), leaving plenty of white space on the page. The end result is a clear, attention-grabbing layout that remains tasteful and appropriate given the subject of the article.

Over the course of working on this article, I’ve learned a ton of interesting facts about sexual assault. Unfortunately, not all of them made it into the article, but I thought I’d share a few for readers who want to learn more about the issue.

1) Whitman’s health center doesn’t do rape kit testing. Barbara Maxwell told me that this is because they were almost never asked to do it, and there was a concern that the validity of a test done at the health center would be called into question in court, because the health center staff might not be experienced enough to run the tests correctly. Consequently, you have to go to a local hospital to get physical evidence collected, though the health center will drive you to a hospital and assist with the process.

2) While this is discussed implicitly in the Circuit article, Whitman’s policy doesn’t actually prohibit sex with someone who’s had some alcohol. The line is drawn when that person is incapacitated due to alcohol consumption, a somewhat subjective concept whose definition varies from person to person. Most of the students I spoke to for the article said that they weren’t aware of this, and survey results confirmed that students are often confused about Whitman’s policy. Thirty-nine percent of survey respondents (a plurality) said that under Whitman’s policy, you can’t consent if you’ve had a few drinks (22.8% said you could, 24.8 said it depends on the situation, and 13.2% were unsure).

3) In Washington State, the statute of limitations for rape varies based on a number of factors including when the crime is reported. For crimes not involving minors, rape reported within a year of commission has a 10 year statute of limitations. Rapes reported a year or more after commission have a 3 year statute of limitations, and cannot be prosecuted more than 7 years after the rape actually took place.

4) According to Detective Sanchez, many rape cases actually don’t make it to trial because perpetrators often plea bargain once they realize the case against them is solid. In his experience, the conviction rate through plea bargains is actually fairly high.

I’ve been happy to see that the articles have generated discussion on campus, and I hope that they will inspire revisions to some of Whitman’s policies. In the mean time, I hope you’ve gotten a better idea of how our newsroom runs.

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