Conflict between sensitivity and journalistic integrity rages on
by Connor O’Brien
Near the end of October, dozens of students participated in the Carry That Weight speak-out. In the wake of Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz, who has been carrying around her mattress and has vowed to only stop once the man who allegedly raped her is removed from campus, Women’s Empowerment and the Sexual Misconduct Task Force hosted the event as part of the National Day of Action. Students gathered on McGinley lawn with their pillows and mattresses in solidarity with Sulkowicz and other victims of sexual assault. Later that week, The Ram published an article covering the event in Issue 19 of Volume 96. Written by Managing Editor Joe Vitale, the article begins by describing the mattresses that people decided to lug around before getting into the coverage of the event.
At one point in the event, organizers invited participants to share their experiences if they felt compelled to speak in opposition to feelings of suppression by administrators and others who would look to silence them. One student commented about her reluctance to tell anyone about the event: “I was just confused, I didn’t know what was happening. I did not want allies because I did not feel like a survivor in the least bit.” She later commented that having that safe space with supporters was a huge improvement for her. Other students shared their emotional accounts in front of the crowd of nearly fifty people.
In Vitale’s article, he made the decision to include full names and school years of those who spoke of their assaults. This caused uproar among those mentioned and the organizers of the events. Members of the Sexual Misconduct Task force and Women’s Empowerment said they tried to get the issue pulled or edited because of the inclusion of the names after The Ram published the article. The exchange took place over several days, with most of the complaints from WE and SMTF centering around the fact that Vitale did not individually contact those named in the article about their consent to be attributed in the article. The newspaper did not pull the issue. Instead, the editors just amended their online version. At the bottom of the article on fordhamram.com, an editor’s note reads: “This article appears differently than its print edition following the removal of a number of student names and an amended quote. The Ram regrets the decision to include the names that have been removed in this version.”
Rumors also followed that The Ram would not be covering issues revolving around sexual assault and/or SAGES unless there were significant developments or changes. However, editors from The Ram denied these allegations vehemently. Subsequent issues proved them right, publishing articles about Campus Assault and Relationship Program (CARE) and the SAGES protest near Lincoln Center in Issue 22 of Volume 96, published on December 3.
However, this kind of journalistic misstep has unfortunately been more commonplace in the past few weeks. In the wake of the Rolling Stone article concerning the alleged gang rape of a student at a fraternity house, Managing Editor Will Dana published a statement of apology and redaction of the article. The Washington Post and other publications have brought up lots of contradicting evidence against “Jackie,” the subject of the article. They issued an apology for not following up with some subjects in the article: “We published the article with the firm belief that it was accurate. Given all of these reports, however, we have come to the conclusion that we were mistaken in honoring Jackie’s request to not contact the alleged assaulters to get their account.” This recent development represents the fact that failure to contact all parties involved in the story results in controversy and additional pain for all those involved.
The tactics surrounding dealing with sexual assault on college campuses differ from school to school, but it remains a universal issue throughout universities everywhere. Too often, a case comes to the forefront of our consciousness simply because of the fact that it was improperly handled or blown out of proportion. Sexual assault is arguably the biggest social issue facing college campuses today, and each case must be treated with absolute sensitivity and tact. Most of all, every account must be taken with gravity and taken into consideration. College newspapers, therefore, need to practice journalistic sensitivity and get consent from subjects of articles. A small addendum at the end of the online version of the article, posted without announcement, cannot be the norm after an entire staff edited it without being able to recognize its problems.