April 25, 2019 | 56° F

EDITORIAL: Newspaper searches for kernels of truth

Careful, ethical reporting on sexual assault is essential


Privacy reaches primacy in this day and age, and privacy issues manifest in many ways, including one between the University of Kentucky and its independent student newspaper, The Kernel.

The Kernel sought to legally release documents from a University of Kentucky sexual assault case, and was supported by Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear. They started to look for information in January after a source close to two alleged victims in the sexual assault case against an associate professor of entomology reached out to them asking for help. The professor denied allegations during a university investigation, and a month later the university and the professor settled the case. The professor was allowed to voluntarily resign and maintain his salary until the end of his term and was able to keep his tenure. According to CNN, the alleged victims thought the settlement was too lenient and were afraid that he would commit the same act in a different university.

Beshear ordered the university to release the documents, but the university is appealing the order and must designate the newspaper as a party. The university is trying to prevent records from being disclosed and claims that it’s a matter of protecting the privacy of victims who want to report an incident. University of Kentucky spokesperson Jay Blanton said, “We believe strongly that only a victim has the right and perspective to tell their story — not the media, not another student or member of the campus, not another perpetrator or stalker. A court of law is the only recourse we have for settling that question.” On the other hand, some argue that the university is only interested in protecting itself and its self-interest. Problems regarding sexual assault and reporting on sexual assault proves to be complex, but relevant to all college campuses.

Once the media disseminates the story, the private issue is discussed in public, and conversations that stem from the story are limited by the information the media received and the way the media frames the story. Newspapers, and in this case, the student newspapers that deal with sexual assault cases at their university must tread carefully, making sure that they are not crossing boundaries that the victim did not give them permission to cross.

Newspapers should require the consent of the victim before releasing an article about the situation. Even if names end up being redacted, seeing your personal story unfold in public view without your consent is another betrayal, another coercive act and another transgression inflicted upon you during a state where you’re most fragile. Newspapers should go to great lengths in ensuring privacy and acquiring consent.

If The Kernel did obtain approval from the sexual assault victims and the victims wanted their story to be told, then it is up to the newspaper to conduct painstaking research in order to tell the story and do it justice. One method is reaching out to a program equivalent to Rutgers’ Office of Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance, and ask for the standard reporting protocol and how to best present the situation.

Issues like these are never clear-cut, so it is difficult to ascertain which side is the “right” side. Was the newspaper in the wrong for trying to report on a story that could warn others about a potential danger or predator lurking in the world of academia? Or was the university in the wrong for trying to, as they claim, protect the privacy of the students who reported the problem?

Apart from these opaque questions that the public lacks adequate information to answer, the main takeaway of the issue is the underlying responsibility of the media to be ethical and sensitive when handling similar cases. Sexual assault stories are unfortunately prevalent, so college newspaper reports on the problem are likely to happen again.

The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 148th editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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