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The Importance of Walking Away

By Rachel Hanebutt
8 Apr 2015
by Wolfram Burner (CC BY -NC 2.0)

By nature, the increase of online news reporting and journalism pressures journalists to get the story fast and as accurate as possible. In the recent case of “A Rape on Campus,” Rolling Stones writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely made the mistake of going after a story, even when not all of the accurate pieces of the story were obtained or obtainable. Her mistake has been highlighted in numerous accounts, including a report by Columbia Journalism School and has become the newest textbook example of why standards of reporting are so important.  While this discussion will not focus on the ethics of Erdely’s actions and reporting, I aim to pose the question, sparked by a recent NYTimes Op-Ed:  When if, at all, do reporters have a moral obligation to “walk away” from a story, rather than report it? 

With the sensitive nature of rape and sexual assault cases, public reporting of these events has faced unending battles of victim blaming, privacy issues, and as in Erdely’s case, the challenge of acquiring the necessary “credibility” required of a journalist’s work. Increased conversations and reports of rape and sexual assault, especially on college campuses, however, might be complicating this issue in that “credible” sources are not always comfortable publicly discussing issues of violence and assault. This problem is exacerbated on campuses with small populations (such as DePauw) that are close-knit; even pseudonyms fight circumstances for anonymity.

Pushing this point further, the task of obtaining accurate information in the contested and hyper-sensitive space of sexual assault sometimes puts the writer in the illegitimate position of deciding the credibility of the victim(s) and/or perpetrator(s) in the situation. While raising awareness for this type of cause is sometimes done most effectively through personal stories and accounts, some victims might not realize the consequences of telling their story to someone whose main intention is to report it.

Additionally, as discussed in The Guardian, it is not the responsibility of the victim to get the story right or to provide the necessary credentials for accurate publication; it is the reporting body’s responsibility and duty.  However, just as with Erdely’s contentious story, the reputation of not only the reporting body, but also the individual whose story is being reported is at stake. On a larger scale, increased inaccurate or poorly written reports of rape and sexual assault, even by journalists with intentions to raise awareness for this issue, might ultimately damage the space of public credibility that is already limited to these victims.

In the same ways that victim anonymity protects individuals, credible and validated reports of sexual assault protect the integrity of sexual assault victims as a whole. In this sense, if a reporter is unable to ensure accuracy of a particular story, it might be best for all rape and sexual assault victims if that story was not told publicly at all. This is not to say, however, that telling the stories of victims or giving a voice to those without one is not important, but rather, that inaccurate reporting of sexual assault could lead to erasure of publicly validation of victims’ experiences in the future.

While we live in a culture where reporting news and raising awareness for causes has become the social backbone of daily life, is telling a potentially vexed or possibly inaccurate story to others more important or ethical than “walking away” and preserving the credibility of sexual assault and rape victims as a whole?

Rachel graduated from DePauw in 2015 and was a Political Science and Education Studies major from Huntingburg, Indiana. She received a Master's from the Mind, Brain, and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
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