Opinion | Clashes between journalists and advocates remind us why communication is king

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Finding a fresh perspective in undiscussed territory is breeding grounds for a great story. Last year at the Cincinnati Enquirer, journalists Kate Murphy and Meg Vogel began looking into the convoluted nature of sexual assault on college campuses. A year later, Murphy and Vogel published a 45-minute video series discussing the ins and outs of the subject, showcasing the perspectives of students, faculty, lawyers, moms, the accused — the whole nine yards.

But this time, their video series didn’t earn them a Pulitzer. Instead, it got them three anonymous death threats, a handful of mean-spirited, alliterative hashtags and an army of pissed off student protesters.

Students For Survivors (SFS), an advocacy group at UC, lambasted the Enquirer for its untimeliness, refusal to take the project down, lack of transparency and willingness to provide a platform for an accused individual.

The project wasn’t published until one year after its initial deadline. SFS members that were interviewed for the piece were frustrated with the lengthy delay.

“We honestly thought it wasn’t going to happen,” said Kenna Corey, SFS member.

However, investigative journalism is drawn out by nature. Stories like these often take more time than originally thought. The Enquirer was operating on USA Today’s schedule, since they were the company that could code this story into existence.

“It was taking so much time because it was complicated technologically,” said Amy Wilson (#ArrogantAmy), editor of “The Sex Talk.” “It had nothing to do with ethics. It had to do with logistics.”

The 45-minute end product was trimmed down from 50 hours of original footage. The editing process alone took more than three months.

When the project was released last month, the initial reaction was excitement and gratitude. However, it didn’t last long.

“There was a lot of support initially, and then things got a little muddy,” said Murphy (#CorruptKate), one of two reporters who crafted the piece. “[We] spent hundreds and hundreds of hours taking the time to be sensitive and lift their voices. And then to be turned on and attacked … feels disrespectful.”

Students For Survivors demanded an impossible request from The Enquirer. They wanted their stories withdrawn from the series after it had been released via USA Today. For perspective, the site had more than 97 million visitors as of April, according to comScore, a company that measures audiences across media platforms.

“It’s very difficult to put toothpaste back in the bottle,” Wilson said. “I don’t think that I can undo that now. Plus, we don’t want to undo it. We still believe strongly in the work we did.”

Survivors claim that they were unaware that the project would be published on USA Today. Had they been given that information beforehand, SFS said its members may have changed their minds about sharing their intimate stories.

letter to the editor, penned by Kenna Corey, poignantly expressed the group’s issues with the series — mainly the Enquirer’s failure to mention that a person accused of sexual assault would be involved in the story.

“The survivors thought this was going to be an advocacy-centered piece,” Corey said. “It’s not. It’s an objective journalistic piece.”

She was right. The Cincinnati Enquirer, by trade, produces objective journalistic work. Advocacy writing isn’t part of a newspaper’s prerogative. If it was, it couldn’t be considered a credible news source — another discrepancy seeded from misunderstanding and differing goals.

“They are an advocacy group and we are journalists,” Murphy said. “We’re not always going to agree on whose voices should be heard.”

I can’t determine if the core issue was a lack of explicit communication or a failure to discuss shared and conflicting goals for the piece. The latter, however, does not affect the journalists’ conduct. The only goals that matter belong to those doing the reporting.

While discussing transparency, after extensively explaining Title IX regulations to me, Corey said that SFS members did not know “a rapist was going to be a part of the project” ahead of time. It was not clear why Corey would call someone a rapist when the individual in question was never criminally convicted of any sexual misconduct.

She expressed deep concern about the possibility that those without a “critical eye … might be lured into this sense of thinking these experiences are parallel.” She made a good point: I’m criticizing this situation from a journalistic perspective, picking apart every detail. I watched “The Sex Talk” before reading SFS’s letter to the editor to remain unbiased. I noticed that the survivors’ stories purposefully followed the accused’s to display the stark contrast in their situations.

But assuming that the general population lacks critical thinking skills and wouldn’t see the same is a baseless accusation and a slight to the common person’s intelligence. Instead of fixating on what couldhappen, I would rather see SFS get its facts straight.

Corey said that “only 5 percent of cases of sexual assault or rape are ever reported.” However, according to the Rape, Assault & Incent National Network (RAINN), about 310 of every 1,000 such cases are reported to the police — roughly 31 percent. Therein likes yet another discrepancy between advocacy and journalism: fact-checking. It matters in both cases to some degree, but while spewing smudged numbers might get you some flak from the student newspaper, printing incorrect facts gets you fired.

Communication is key in most situations. But in this one, communication is king. It might have saved Amy Wilson from receiving three death threats. It might have saved the SFS members a great deal of anxiety. And it could have helped to avoid a situation where two parties that should be working together ended up butting heads.

“Every story, we say, is a lesson for the next story,” Wilson said. Perhaps the lesson of this story is the importance of heeding the king.

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