Jayme Poisson on investigative reporting on sexual assault
A Q&A with the Toronto Star reporter, whose Hillman Prize-winning series found that only nine out of 78 Canadian universities have sexual assault policies.
By Jeremy Simes
Jayme Poisson’s work has come from many places. Joining the Toronto Star as an intern in 2010, she covered the Toronto G20, the 2011 Egyptian revolution and the city’s crime beat before landing a full-time gig and moving into the Star’s investigative team in January 2013.
In November 2014, Poisson and colleague Emily Mathieu sparked a national discussion about sexual assaults on Canadian campuses with an investigative series that found only nine out of 78 Canadian universities had sexual assault policies at the time. The coverage went on to win the 2015 Canadian Hillman Prize earlier this month.
Jeremy Simes caught up with Poisson over the phone to discuss the investigation. In particular, the story of Jenny: a former University of Saskatchewan student who was raped in an apartment at the student residences. Due to a publication ban, Jenny’s real name can’t be revealed.
J-Source: How did the idea of investigating sexual assaults on Canadian campuses come about in the Star newsroom?
Poisson: We had been watching what was happening in the United States. There was a huge movement about sexual assaults on campuses. There was sort of a backlash there from people who were angry about how their schools are handling the issue.
There wasn’t a lot of information about it in Canada, so we approached it with a really open mind. Immediately, people were telling us that they felt it was very unclear on what universities’ responsibilities were when it came to addressing or dealing with victims of sexual assault.
Obviously, policies and procedures set a standard. We have them so that everybody is aware of their expectations. That’s what you were hearing from experts—that universities needed something that laid out options for sexual assault victims who may need academic help or academic accommodations. Some victims were saying they were sitting in classes with students that they said raped them.
A year prior, there were government documents from the Ontario Women’s Directorate regarding this issue. They recommended that all schools have a policy that deals with sexual violence. So we thought we would count the number of schools that had anything similar to this. We found nine out of 78 universities, and no colleges in Ontario.
From there, we were trying to find individual stories. So I found Jenny’s story.
J-Source: How did you find her story?
Poisson: I found it in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, as it was covered as a trial. But there wasn’t a lot of information with the University of Saskatchewan. I only could see from the article that it happened in the University of Saskatchewan residences.
So I emailed the prosecutor, and said, “This is what we’re researching: how universities are dealing with sexual assaults on their campuses involving their students. I’m wondering if ‘Jenny’ would want to talk to me about anything.” So the prosecutor passed my contact information on, and Jenny phoned me shortly thereafter.
I had all the court documents from the trial and then spoke to Jenny and her mom. We tried to speak to everybody involved: the guys who were accused in the case, their lawyers and the school.
While I was in Saskatchewan, Jenny’s mom had mentioned she met with a group of women who had been working to change how universities deal with sexual assault. So I met with them, as well.
I think in those scenarios as a reporter, what you want to try and do is get as much information or do as much corroborating as possible.[node:related]
J-Source: Was Jenny open to talking to you at first?
JP: Yes. At first she wanted to talk off the record because it’s a really sensitive topic. I think a really important part of interviewing anybody—not just sexual assault victims but anyone who has a sensitive story—is to be as transparent as possible, laying out the process. You want to make sure that it’s informed consent. That makes for a richer story. Also, you—as a journalist—have to do your due diligence: try to get all sides.
J-Source: The StarPhoenix didn’t publish pictures of Jenny’s face because of a publication ban. How did you get around that loophole?
Poisson: We have really good lawyers. Jenny signed a letter that was approved by our lawyers. The letter talked about how she was aware there was a publication ban, and that she wanted to waive it because she thought that this was in the public interest.
That isn’t something you should do without lawyers. The benefit of working for a large news organization is that they have a lot of expertise behind them.
J-Source: Jenny reveals a lot of graphic details in the story. How did you get her to open up?
Poisson: I think she is a very open person. But I also think she spent a lot of time preparing for her testimony, which had to be very detailed. She had already given that interview many times to the police and the court. By the time I had interviewed her, she had already testified on the stand for two days. Also, she had a big support system around her.
J-Source: Sexual assault issues on Canadian campuses have exploded in the media lately. Will you and the Star continue to do stories on this issue?
Poisson: Yes. We have a couple stories in the works now. After our series ran, all the universities and colleges in Ontario vowed to create task forces to look at this issue. One issue that they’re looking at is collecting statistics all the same way. The colleges now have created a uniform sexual assault policy so that there is a clear path for victims, so everybody knows what the expectations of them are. The University of Saskatchewan was one of those schools that created a policy.
We’re interested in doing more stories like this. There’s more to be done. I think the schools have moved quickly and they’re taking it seriously.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.