Reporting on sexual assault nearly impossible

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If you heard a rumor someone was raped on campus, what would you do?

Would you report what you heard to the police, or to the newspaper?

Would you say nothing?

Would you try to find out if it were true, or would you believe it without question?

If you report it to the police, they may investigate, but without the survivor’s statement, it is likely to be futile.

Most people turn the other way, and the rumor becomes little more than a topic of conversation.

But if you are a newspaper, your decision is more complex.

If you are a reporter, should you write about what you heard without knowing it is true?

No, it’s bad journalism to write about rumor alone.

But often in sexual assault crimes we hear only bits and pieces or rumors of what happens.

Few survivors of sexual assault come forward to the police. Most of those who do choose not to press charges.

Survivors may be afraid, they may begin to doubt if it was rape, or they may just want to pretend the incident didn’t happen.

But sexual assault is real. It happens.

When we hear of a sexual assault on campus (and we do), there is often very little to report. We do not know the survivor’s name, where the crime occurred, or what the circumstances surrounding the crime are. We might be told by the police if it was an acquaintance (which it usually is), but not who the people are.

The information is vague, at best. The USM police logs may cite whether the incident occurred on or off campus, and whether the survivor knew the perpetrator. Without a formal complaint filed, we have very little to report on, even if the crime happened and the police know about it.

The only thing we know for sure is that someone came forward with information about a sexual assault.

So we report nothing, or report something so vague it hardly raises an eyebrow.

By reporting nothing, it feels like we’ve looked the other way and passed the rumor off as little more than gossip.

Yet our options are limited in these cases.

If we pursued the survivor (even if we knew who it was), we could traumatize her even further. If we do nothing, we keep the information to ourselves, and the community has no idea anything was reported to the police.

The only way to report ethically, is for people to come forward, to tell their stories and not be afraid to press charges. The current system forces the burden to be on the survivor.

There is no easy solution. Survivors will continue to remain silent as long as they are intimidated by the system, afraid to be ridiculed in the press or scrutinized in court.

The police can’t investigate on rumor alone, reporters can not write on hearsay.

By educating the community, perhaps more people will come forward in support of the survivor. The burden will not be hers alone.

Until then, sexual assault will remain almost silent on campus. We will rarely have solid facts to report, and the community will continue to hear only rumors.

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