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Tips for reporting the year’s toughest story

by Candace Bowen, MJE

It’s the story of the year, perhaps even the decade. The general topic is listed in the top 10 issues of concern for teens in almost every poll. Misunderstandings and misinformation play a big role, and adults so often don’t know how to talk about it either. This could and should be where student journalists step up, yet, sadly, it’s one of the hardest for them to write about.

Sex. And in particular, sexual assault, has been a female concern for a long time, getting more attention with Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo last year. And now with the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings, teen males see the impact it could have on them – rightly or wrongly.

So, can student journalists write about it? Of course, they can – and should. Some administrators – face it, ALL administrators – may squirm at the thought, but how a staff covers the topic will make a huge difference and might help determine their success.

Here are some things to think about if your students want to write about sexual assault and some helpful resources as well.

First, it’s a BIG issue with many different aspects.Trying to cover them all would be, like the old cliché, a mile wide and an inch deep, and that would be too generic to help anyone. The secret, then, is to choose an aspect that is narrow and focused and vital to the audience.

“Education Week,” in its Oct. 5, 2018 web posting, has Conversations About Sexual Assault Have Roiled the Nation. 6 Takeaways for Educators. One of author Stacey Decker’s list seems particularly appropriate for student media: “Consent is teachable. But it’s not covered much in sex education.”She notes that what is taught varies widely in different parts of the country, but she cites an Oct. 1, 2018 Guttmacher Institute reportthat shows only half the statesrequire information about ways to avoid coerced sex in their coursework:

Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia require the provision of information about skills for healthy sexuality (including avoiding coerced sex), healthy decision making and family communication when sex education is taught.

  • 25 states and the District of Columbia require that sex education include information about skills for avoiding coerced sex.
  •  22 states require that sex education include information on making healthy decisions around sexuality.
  •  11 states require that sex education include instruction on how to talk to family members, especially parents, about sex.

The report also includes a chart that shows all about general sex education requirements in each state.

Second, choose a topic that can focus on information and advice from experts. That first-person story with “Jessica (not her real name)” may work in commercial media, but it has two problems for student media.

Perhaps most important, it can’t fill in the information gaps for readers. One person’s experience is only one person’s views, but a therapist who deals with victims of such assault or a psychologist could give solid advice and answer more about skills to learn to avoid such frightening situations. That’s the kind of thing most useful to teen readers.

Also, if “Jessica” is really a student in the school, keeping her identity a secret may be nearly impossible. Someone knows the story, and word will get around. Worse yet, that “word” might not be right and may be leading students to believe the victim is someone else entirely. Or, equally bad, if she hasn’t told her parents, this is not the way they should be finding out. Too many ethical dilemmas with an unnamed source in this story.

Focusing on expert – but not “preachy” advice also eliminates some problems even college newspapers have had. Last May, the Student Press Law Center reported on challenges student mediaat the University of Memphis and the University of Kentucky had covering sexual assault.

Third, getting legal advice – NOT the principal’s thoughts — is vital. Mitchell Koch, reporter who wrote the University of Memphis article, said he was careful to do his “due diligence in corroborating the story.” He said he consulted several university media professors plus an SPLC attorney. Students can schedule a phone call or submit a short form to request advice from the SPLC. Of course, advisers can, too, but remember this is students’ work and their decisions, not the adviser’s.

Finally, avoid dramatic staged photos or overly sexual art.The idea is to help students cope with situations. They will read an article on this topic without provocative teasers to draw them in, and that art or photo might be what upsets your administrators – unnecessarily.

The Student Press Law Center hosted two webinars from late 2017 that might also be of interest, one about covering sexual assaults on campus, with lawyer Mike Hiestand talking about some legal issues involved in such coverage. The second is more about accessing public records.

Students CAN cover these tough topics. It’s a matter of keeping in mind the need to have a narrow focus that keeps the audience in mind, use expert sources who can explain what that audience doesn’t know – and may be afraid to ask, get legal advice and provide visuals that aren’t designed to shock viewers. In other words, student journalists can be professionals who make a difference in their communities.

 

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