March 2013 podcast: Huffington Post editor discusses heightened attention on colleges and sexual assault



Huffington Post College Editor Will McGuinness talks about the site's coverage of sexual assaults on college campuses and what college journalists can do to cover the issue.

Frank LoMonte: Thanks for being with us for another edition of the Student Press Law Center’s monthly podcast. We’re here to talk about a topic that’s both incredibly important and, at times, also uncomfortable. The topic that’s drawing attention, scrutiny in college campuses across the country and that’s the problem of sexual assault. Specifically, how well colleges do or don’t respond when a student comes forward and reports an attack, and how journalists can more effectively report on what, at times, is a very secretive campus justice system.

I’m Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. The SPLC is an advocate for free expression and transparency in schools and colleges and we train journalists to use the law to gather and reporter great stories like the news that we’re here to talk about today. If you’re interested in learning more, we hope you’ll visit the SPLC.org website and follow SPLC on Twitter – it’s just @SPLC.

Well, the fact that colleges might be prone to sexual assaults doesn’t exactly qualify as a breaking news flash, if you put a lot of young people, late hours, alcohol, close living quarters, together in one place, unfortunately, sexual violence will, at times, be the result. What’s new, is that victims dissatisfied with their college’s responses increasingly are taking their case to the public and they’re finding an ally in the U.S. Department of Education, which is promising to get more aggressive at policing sexual assault as a matter of civil rights. The inadequacy of college’s response mechanisms was perhaps most dramatically brought home by the revelation last Fall that Oklahoma State University knew of a serial sex offender loose on campus and intentionally withheld that information from the police and the public and what they later acknowledged was a completely mistaken interpretation of federal student privacy laws.

Well, William McGuinness is the senior editor of HuffPost College. He’s based in New York City, he’s a native of Fall River, Massachusetts. He’s been a reporter and editor for several media outlets including CBS and The Boston Globe. In 2010, he graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst where he was the editor-in-chief of The Daily Collegian, the largest daily college newspaper in New England. And Will, we’re really delighted to have you and The Huff Post here with us on the podcast. I guess first, talk to us about Huff Post’s new focus on this important area, this important topic. Describe the topic that you’re working on, how did you get started and how is gonna work?

William McGuinness: Sure thing. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a very new focus. What’s important here is that this happens all the time. And basically the reason that we started this project, or I would call it a more concentrated focus, is because we kept seeing these stories of colleges not responding appropriately to students’ sexual assault allegations properly. We’d see one or two a week, I mean it was to the point where we thought we could just cover this incrementally and in such a granular way. So, we basically teamed up with the investigative journalism class at the University of Massachusetts and it was an easy partnership – that’s where I went – as a veteran of the investigative journalism program and Amherst at the moment was a hotbed for this kind of discussion. There’s Smith College which is right across the river, it’s an all-girls school, there’s Amherst College where they had their own instances where they acknowledged that they could have responded better to student’s allegations of sexual assault. There’s one student, her name’s Angie Epifano, she had an editorial in The Amherst Student there where she basically recounted how the college’s administration blatantly ignored her request and her situation. Months later we heard another story from Florida, where one student, also from Amherst, actually jumped off of a bridge because the administration didn’t believe his story and was not prepared to respond appropriately to it. So, I mean, what what we want to do at the project is, through the power of aggregation bring all of these stories together, point out where colleges went wrong, point out where colleges are doing the right thing and highlight what’s working across the nation, and offer that information for public consumption. We don’t know what’s going to happen to it, we don’t know which colleges listen – but the idea is to have it out there so that it’s there.

Frank LoMonte: Yeah. Well, let me get you to expand a little bit more on, because Huffington is known as being a destination for aggregation a lot of times, but this also involves a fair amount of original reporting, using this team you have on the ground working with you at Amherst. Do they have a particular scope of a mission or a charge or a task, what exactly are they going to be pursuing and is this going to be New England focused or Massachusetts focused, or will they in fact be taking a more nationwide perspective?

William McGuinness: Because it’s a partnership, I asked the students at Amherst to focus on exactly what’s going on in their community. To focus on victim’s stories, to focus on how their administration specifically deals with issues of assault allegations and how their university police departments interact with the larger town’s department, and then what happens in the student community after something like this happens. How do they respond? Do they question the rape culture on campus and what do they do to improve it? So the idea is that they would take a really local approach and here at HuffPost we’re going to take that story and pump it up to a much larger audience on the national level, combining their stories with stories coming out of Oklahoma, coming out of the University of North Carolina, coming from Minnesota – I mean all of the different areas where we’re seeing similar stories.

Frank LoMonte: Yeah, you mentioned University of North Carolina – of course, that’s the one that’s been getting an enormous amount of attention, the U.S. Department of Education is now in there investigating the complaints of several victims and of one former employee at UNC, who has been saying that systematically the university has been both underreporting the number of sexual assaults that happen there on campus and also not responding with sufficient urgency and seriousness when people bring those cases to the attention of the authorities on campus. The U.S. Dept. of Ed. police Title IX, which is the federal antidiscrimination statute, and it it’s been established historically that they can pursue cases as sort of a hostile environment for students under the auspices of Title IX and are now starting to view a culture where sexual assault is not taken seriously as being part of a hostile environment, so that’s an interesting new development in the view of the federal anti discrimination law.

You mentioned that the Amherst cases – and for those that have not read it, the letter published by the student victim in Amherst where she walks through exactly what happened to her when she brought a case to the attention of authorities – it’s an unbelievable, sad and dramatic tale of how somebody can be mistreated by the system, it’s really worth a read. Do you think the Amherst letter is what has touched off the increased focus on this or is there something else bigger going on that has suddenly caused – there’s certainly a lot more media attention, more regulatory attention, more attention by the authorities on this area. To what can we attribute that?

William McGuinness: Well, I kind of see it just as a fundamental characteristic of virility. At Huffington Post we share everything we do on the social web and that we watch what happens to it and we watch how it takes hold with readers and how people share it. If it’s not a shocking story – which this certainly is – it’s also attached to a larger narrative, it’s attached to something that people experience but don’t necessarily talk about every day. And, in this case, it was both. We saw a shocking story that people could completely understand was happening over and over again on college campuses. So, what we saw was after Angie published that editorial, she got a flood of response from other sexual assault victims from around the country, from around the world really, and she just said she was almost crippled by the response and I don’t know if crippling could be a positive thing, I’m not sure I used the right word there, but it was hers, but the idea is it’s much bigger than anybody had previously thought, that sharing their stories can only be a positive thing in the end, in the grand scope. We’ve got a story out today about an underground network of college rape survivors who have actually banded together, are in touch with one another and are planning a coast-to-coast push to file ethics complaints with the Department of Education. You’re starting to see activism, you’re starting to see communities built around this that otherwise would not have been aware of one another.

Frank LoMonte: It’s really interesting how social media enables that connection to be made and how networks can be built like that among people who would never ever have any reason to meet each other otherwise.

William McGuinness: To students I would just say that, you don’t have to sensationalize their stories, you don’t need the Law and Order SVU account of the nitty gritty details of everything that’s happened. It’s just to let them tell their own story and just get out of the way really.

Frank LoMonte: Yeah, that’s a great point. Sometimes less is more in stories like this and certainly, you don’t want to be melodramatic about it because the facts are dramatic in and of themselves without any embellishment. What are some of the challenges, Will, that you have seen that journalists are encountering when they’re trying to write about the subject of rape on campus? One of the things I’m thinking of specifically though is the confidentiality barriers when student disciplinary systems throw up privacy, the inability to obtain reliable records in the face of FERPA and privacy objections.

William McGuinness: I mean, those are certainly major barriers, major things that we run into. What we try to do is to get as much information from the source as possible and that’s just basically how we go about it. We try to represent both sides of the story, of course, and we run editorials from students around the country on the rights of those accused as well. When telling victims’ stories you have to, of course, realize there’s a burden of proof and a lot of this stuff hasn’t gone through the criminal justice program and that’s another barrier we’ve run into too, that a lot of these are allegations made to campus disciplinary boards that have actually never been reported or dealt with in a legal circumstance. What are the ethics then of treating something like rape in a non-criminal matter? I would just suggest to the students to really think about that and tread carefully.

Frank LoMonte: No, that’s a very good point because obviously you’re dealing with, in many instances, a story where you’re speaking to the victim who’s willing to tell her story but the accused person very often can’t be found or won’t be interviewed on the advice of legal council that wouldn’t be something an attorney would legally advise you to do is give an interview while you’re potentially exposed to criminal liability and civil liability, so that makes it especially hard to tell a story like that without an outcome from a judicial process where you can confidently say that it’s been established beyond a reasonable doubt that this crime occurred.

WILLIAM MCGUINNESS: That’s exactly right. Just prior to actually launching the series, I mean very strangely I was attending a play here in New York called “Really Really” and it was loosely based on the Duke lacrosse scandal, but also mixed in with the University of Virginia lacrosse scandal, meaning that in one case the victim was found to be lying and in another case it was absolutely true and she actually ended up dead. The idea is when there’s no evidence and there’s alcohol involved, emotions are so high so it’s hard to know who to believe so you have to give equal time to each side of things. Our project doesn’t necessarily report on individual rapes or try to find blame, it doesn’t prosecute anybody. What it does is it creates an opportunity for the environment to improve around when these are reported and how college administrators actually react to it. We’re in the middle of something different that could affect the reporting process in a different way.

Frank LoMonte: Well, one of the aspects of this story that does make the college campus setting unique as opposed to the community at large, is the existence of that disciplinary process and the existence of the confidentiality that goes with it that I wonder if in the reporting that your folks are doing and just in the material that you’ve been reviewing on this subject, are you drawing any lessons or conclusions about the appropriateness of campus disciplinary bodies – people who are generally not lawyers, generally not using the rules and evidences that you have in court, often with parties who are not represented by legal counsel. Is that whole process in any way just sort of systemically not amenable to the resolution of a rape, is this a business that colleges ought not be in at all?

William McGuinness: I think that’s a tricky question to ask but it’s an incredible appropriate one. I think it’s important to remember that there’s over 5,000 different colleges and universities in the country and each of them, very likely, has a reporting process that varies greatly from one to another. The goal of this project is to basically highlight the ones that have really great processes and we’re also going to shine the light on those that don’t. And what we’ve seen through our reporting at Amherst college already is that college presidents are very quick to admit when there’s a problem and to acknowledge that maybe there’s an easy way to figure this out that we just haven’t thought about because we thought there wasn’t a problem. Speaking specifically to your question about representation and having no legal representation there and student boards etc., I think – and this is just kind of what I’ve stumbled upon in my research and some might disagree – but the idea was that it is all based on power dynamics at the university. Students at one time might have thought it inappropriate to report his or her rape to an administration that was primarily concerned with their public reputation, they didn’t want to necessarily put bad stories out there in the public realm. So they created these student boards to act to mitigate that effect to make it seem like students are reporting their abuses to an audience of their peers. In a lot of cases though we found that their peers are not the right people do be doing this – they don’t have the training and a lot of cases it creates almost two levels of discipline when there should only be one. I mean, if you're raped do you really care if your rapist is flunked or if he is prosecuted in the court of law? I think right now it's being treated as two separate things but maybe there's different models that do it better.

Frank LoMonte: Well, just in the couple minutes that we have left, let's say I am a college journalist, I'm on a campus where I don't have an Angie Epifano, I don't have a whistleblower who comes forward and tells this compelling personal narrative, I don't have a victim who is cooperating with me to share her story about the system – any thoughts or tips about how, as a journalist, what should I be looking for? How do I get inside of this process and tell this story about whether my schools is one of the schools that's doing it right or doing it wrong?

William McGuinness: I think aggregation is a powerful tool for that. I think based on the model of journalism we do here, we're not always dependent on having to make the phone call and having the connection there, so as long as the informations out there we're gonna use it, we're gonna source it and we're gonna drive traffic to it. But we’re going to basically rely on the part of the information that’s already out. As far as local resources, I would work with maybe nonprofit resources in the area, I know at UMass we had this center called the Every Woman Center which worked with victims. I don’t know if that’s available to everybody at every college but if not then you should just look for the local one. Even look at your city or town’s resources. It’s important to realize that not every issue at your college is simply a college issue. Anybody can really help out who knows more than you do. If you’re reporting and you don’t know anything, the first place to start is with somebody who knows more than you.

Frank LoMonte: Yeah. Well, I think that’s a terrific tip too and maybe we’ll wrap it up there by saying that if you find on your own campus, especially if you go to a private college where you don’t have a right to demand access to public records, if you find that your own campus isn’t that forthcoming about how many assaults they have and how they handle them, do think about opening up your reporting and looking into the larger community. Is there at the county level or, as you say, at the nonprofit level, so sort of advocacy office where somebody may keep better track of these cases and may be less motivated to conceal than the college.

Will McGuinness of HuffPost College, I want to thank you for giving us a look at some fascinating reporting that you and your partners are continuing to do – a topic of such urgency on all college campuses. And we will look forward to following your work. Will, do you want to give the url or website where people can look up HuffPost College?

William McGuinness: Sure thing. You can just go to HuffPostCollege.com.

Frank LoMonte: Okay. Can’t be easier than that. Well, for any of you who are interested in checking up on your own college’s crime reporting there’s a wealth of resources that we have on the SPLC.org website including a copy of our “Covering Campus Crime Guide.” We hope you’ll take time to explore those resources. We hope you’ll connect with @SPLC on Twitter at SPLC on Facebook and also on Tumblr where we have a site that’s dedicated specifically to sharing links to interesting public records stories like those that Will’s team at Huffington are working on. If you’re a student journalist or journalism educator with any question about the law, please call our hotline at 703-807-1904 or email us at splc@splc.org and thanks for listening.