Reporters Talk: Media Coverage and Sexual Assualt on College Campuses

By on Monday, January 23, 2012
Center for Public Integrity writer Kristen Lombardi talks
about interviewing 50 survivors of rape on colleges
campuses and cultivating advocates and intermediaries
to help connect with survivors

It’s not easy to report on trauma and intimate partner violence. In this video from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma’s conference to help reporters working on reporting about intimate partner violence. All the reporters who spoke on this panel about interviewing survivors of intimate violence had a lot of interesting things to day, but I found Kristen Lombardi, of the Center for Public Integrity, particularly intriguing. She shared some insights that may be helpful for nonprofits working to support trauma survivors who are sharing their stories in the media.

Transparency and informed consent are critical to an investigative story like this, notes Kristen Lombardi, who was investigating rape on college campuses nationally and how their schools had responded. The judicial process many of them when through was as traumatic as their sexual assault. Time was a critical element in her investigative work, as she was able to do research and talk with survivors over an extensive period of time and build a bond of trust with them.

About 90% of survivors, once you establish a relationship with them, will go on the record, if given the option, said Lombardi. But building a relationship with them and helping them understand the story was critical to gaining consent and often required extensive negotiations and time. Yet when they trusted her and found that her story would potentially expose a large scale system failure on college campuses across the country, they often shared many details. Many of the survivors signed privacy waivers so the reporter could get access to campus records, disciplinary files and other materials.

She talks about allowing survivors control of some aspects of the process – setting up their own location or time for interviews, giving them the space and time they needed to deal with difficult issues, or the option to have someone else with them at the interview who could help them feel comfortable.

The interviews were done in three steps: (1) inviting them to share their story and who they were before the traumatic event, and then discuss the case itself, (2) following up with questions based on the transcript, and (3) coming back to the survivor with any of the more difficult questions. It’s important for journalists to think about how they ask the tough questions when working with survivors of intimate violence, notes Lombardi, because you don’t want to trigger their fears of being disbelieved, as so many survivors of rape are not believed.

Before publication, Lombardi also shared passages of their stories with them, so they could see how their stories were represented, even though that posed serious ethical challenges for her, because the Center has a policy of not sharing drafts of stories, ever, with sources. Read Lombardi’s investigative work.

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media advice, writing services, and creative design work for publications and websites (portfolio). Ami blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

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