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When high school students call out sexual assault on social media, reporting challenges abound

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

When high school students call out sexual assault on social media, reporting challenges abound

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(Reveal/The Center for Investigative Reporting and Molly Mendoza)
(Reveal/The Center for Investigative Reporting and Molly Mendoza)

In the summer of 2020, high school students and alums began sharing their experiences with abuse en masse on Twitter and Instagram. This was years after the #MeToo movement changed the conversation and the rules around what accountability can look like. Now it was happening again in this public way with the focus on abuse in high school. 2020 was a year of incredible suffering, and high school students were finding creative ways to be heard. In many cases, students were educating each other, and their peers were listening and resharing their experiences. 

Some student leaders I spoke with described a culture of sweeping sexual abuse under the rug during public board meetings. They sent out emails to administrators demanding changes and drafted district-wide Title IX resolutions. Others held protests on football fields. But with some exceptions, it did not seem like adults were listening or journalists were reporting on this. And I think in part that’s because this was a complicated, unwieldy story to tell. Stories about sexual assault are already difficult to report, but the social media aspect of this added a layer of doubt, skepticism, and ethical questions.

When I started reporting on a #MeToo social media account set up for students at one California school, for example, a spokesperson told me she was surprised I was reporting on the account at all. She was also worried that reporting on this could cause more harm by bringing a spotlight to an unvetted platform posting unsubstantiated allegations. 

The spokesperson told me that another journalist had already looked into this, and determined that there was not a story there because the allegations could not be corroborated. A school staff member at a different school repeated this mantra: there was no story. Others wanted me to focus less on the victims and more on the impact on the young boys who were accused. 

When I was pitching this project over the phone, an editor said, “Just because people are posting allegations on Twitter doesn’t mean they’re true.”  

This skepticism made me obsessed with witness corroboration, documentation, and text message trails. But in many cases involving abuse, that kind of evidence does not exist, or sources are not eager to share it with a reporter they do not know. 

Over time, I learned that such skepticism did not make this attempt to seek accountability online any less real for any of the students who chose to do so. Sharing their experience publicly was a tangible event in their life, even if it happened through an online platform. There were reasons they chose an online space over police or school administrators, and their decision to do so had an impact on their life and those around them. It was visible, public, and it had consequences. That was enough of a reason to report on this social media phenomenon. 

Throughout this reporting, that was my biggest lesson, and many sources did want a more official platform like KQED to share their experiences. But that would mean they would also lose some control over how their story was told. This series constantly tested my understanding around when to grant anonymity, and power and control in storytelling. 

Anonymity and naming names 

When I first began reporting on harassment and assault allegations at San Francisco’s Lowell High School, many of the victims and witnesses asked to be anonymous. Even though the abuse had occurred years before, some of the women were still afraid that the alleged perpetrator would hurt them or their families. In other cases, they were afraid talking about abuse would bring unwarranted attention to them and hurt their careers. So many people were afraid that it began to surprise me when sources were comfortable being named. Many of those sources were younger, and seemed proud of being a part of this movement to change the culture at their school. Many of the adults, on the other hand, had carried shame for years. 

Some outlets have policies where sexual assault victims are granted anonymity automatically. When I began this reporting at KQED, sources could be granted anonymity if being identified would put their lives, property or liberty at risk. At the same time, I learned that if I met requests for anonymity with skepticism or asked too many questions, I would never get anywhere with this reporting. People would be hesitant to trust me at all. One source was so nervous about being identified she asked that I send her a recording where I agreed not to use her name. 

But even when sources did meet the criteria for anonymity, it was logistically difficult to structure a story based on unnamed sources. And I did circle back with two of them to ask if they’d reconsider being anonymous. 

During this reporting, I have regularly turned to the book “She Said,” by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, the New York Times reporters who broke the story about Harvey Weinstein’s history of abuse and sexual misconduct. 

They describe saying this to victims who are considering coming forward: “I can’t change what happened to you in the past, but together we may be able to use your experience to help protect other people.”

Someday I will try this method, but for this reporting, I relied more on chance than persuasion. In my Lowell story, one of the victims was willing to be named. She had faced harassment as a teenager, and her close friend was assaulted by that same alleged perpetrator, who was facing accusations from several others.  She ended up being one of the central characters in the piece, and her willingness to be named is one of the reasons I was able to report this story at all. 

Bringing in the documentation 

When I first began this reporting, I began my conversations with survivors based on a script informed by guidelines from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) on how to interview survivors. The guidelines suggest talking about the fact checking process, or more specifically: 

Are there any steps in your editorial or review process that involve verification or fact checking? For instance, will you need to speak with the perpetrator, law enforcement, or other individuals who may be involved with the story? If so, let the survivor know before you start the interview. Be clear about these requirements up front, so they have an opportunity to decline if they are uncomfortable with the process.” 

I was worried that if I did not ask survivors for documentation early on, they would be confused or surprised if I asked for it later. So, I told survivors in my initial conversations that I might need to contact perpetrators or require documentation related to abuse they had reported to the school. But while reporting on sexual abuse at Berkeley High School, I realized this was the wrong approach. Many of the survivors at that school had faced retaliation, were ostracized, or called liars for speaking out. Now a reporter was asking them to prove their experiences. One victim asked me point blank, “Is this because you don’t believe me?”  

So I stopped doing that, because in the early stages of this reporting, my job is to build trust, not to make demands. 

Giving up some control 

One way to build trust with sources is to give up some control over the story, and offer to walk them through some of the details in the piece before publication. That’s also important for accuracy. In stories that take months to report, a victim might change their mind about details they’re comfortable sharing to the public, and it’s important to give them that agency. In another case, one victim asked her experience not to be included in the piece at all. But in this case, two people had witnessed the abuse on school grounds, and so it seemed important to include. When I described the precise sentence I wanted to include, she agreed to let us use it. 

What happens now 

Perhaps it was a coincidence, perhaps not, but a few of the students I interviewed for this series were also writers for their school newspapers. I think that’s part of what compelled them to share their experiences with a reporter. They wanted the movements on social media to be documented in some way, and trusted KQED to do that. Many of these teenagers were also stuck at home and isolated during the pandemic, and relied on social media to stay connected with each other. When students return to class in the fall, their efforts to address sexual harassment and assault will likely take on different forms.

Now I feel like I am constantly seeing allegations online, and not just related to sexual abuse but other forms of misconduct as well, including mistreatment by managers. People still dismiss allegations on social media all the time because of the anonymity and because of the platform. But in my reporting, many people who share their stories online did so after other systems failed to help them. And that is why these stories are important to tell. 

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