Student newspapers face unique challenges when trying to report on sexual assault and gendered violence.

This story was funded by the J-Source Patreon campaign.

By Shrinkhala Dawadi

In recent years, several instances of sexual assault and gendered violence at universities have caused public concern , and much of the initial reporting on these stories were conducted by the student media.

Sebastian Leck broke a story in the Queen’s Journal about the systemic lack of support for survivors of sexual assault at Queen’s university. Victoria Wicks published a similar piece for the Varsity, a student newspaper at the University of Toronto.

I co-wrote and broke a story about an incident of physical assault at McGill, where administration did not sanction the perpetrator even after he was arrested and charged with assault causing bodily harm. It was published in the McGill Tribune, a student newspaper at McGill.

Stories that shed light on the experiences of survivors, and on how universities respond to incidents of sexual assault and gendered violence are important. One in four Canadian women enrolled in a post-secondary institution will experience sexual violence during the course of her studies.

Student journalists can highlight how universities fail to provide for students who have gone through an extremely traumatic event. However, reporting on cases of sexual assault and gendered violence as a student journalist can be challenging.

Universities as uncommunicative sources

While writing “It doesn’t matter” my co-author, Julia Dick, and I found it difficult to carry out basic functions of reporting, such as securing interviews with members of McGill University’s administration. Several of my requests for interviews were left unanswered, or responded to via a short email statement, or redirected to the dean of students.

To his credit, the dean agreed to an in-person interview, but he couldn’t fully speak to the rationale behind the different McGill policies that govern gendered violence and recourse procedures. For example: What constitutes a founded or an unfounded complaint? This detail matters because the majority of formal complaints at McGill are categorized as unfounded, and consequently, no sanctions are enforced against the accused.

The dean also declined to comment on why the perpetrator in the specific case of physical assault that I was reporting on had been allowed to participate in a variety of McGill clubs after his arrest.

Wicks and Leck also said they encountered administrators who only communicated via email statements.

“It’s irritating because … follow up questions take forever,” Leck said. “I would wait a week, or a week and a half. And then they would send me some sort of email statement that kind of addresses some of my questions, but not really, and then they wouldn’t write back.”

Wicks noted that vague email statements from university administration are antithetical to an open discussion about university policy.

“(Universities are) trying to protect their reputation,” she said. “If the university will not take responsibility for people falling through the cracks of their system, then there isn’t going to be a genuine discussion about how to fix that issue … then they’re doing a disservice to the sexual assault survivors.”

Althea Blackburn-Evans, director of media relations at the University of Toronto told me in a phone interview that the department of communications had, in recent years, tried to facilitate interviews between campus media and members of university administration.

“We get the (interview) request, we determine who is the best person to speak, and who might be available and often times that is a central administrator, or the expert on the topic, and sometimes it’s me,” she said. “So we treat the student paper … just like a regular member of the media.”

Pressure because of writing about controversial issues

Student media will also sometimes face pressure from university administrators around their stories. Emma Partridge of the Ubyssey, a student newspaper at the University of British Columbia, encountered such an experience when reporting on a human rights complaint filed by a UBC student against the university for how it handled her complaint of sexual assault. (Partridge is currently working part-time for UBC communications.)

“I felt like there was a meeting that took place that wasn’t necessarily about helping us, but it was more about trying to see if we knew what was going on,” she said. “I was a little bit uncomfortable, because I felt like the framing of that meeting itself wasn’t genuine.”

It is important to note, however, that the majority of the reporters I spoke to didn’t feel like universities were actively trying to dissuade them from writing about sexual assault. They mostly experienced an unwillingness on the part of administration to communicate information.

“(Administration) didn’t take student journalists very seriously,” Leck said. “They would try to leave you with nothing. Hopefully you would just drop it.”

Interviewing survivors of trauma

Beyond trying to get information from administration, both Leck and Wicks mentioned that speaking to survivors was a challenging experience, especially as students with no prior training on how to interview sources who are disclosing traumatic experiences.

“I don’t want to over-inflate it because I know that there are people in war zones,” Wicks said. “But we’re also students, we’re kids, we’re trying to study at the same time.”

“Mental health issues, sexual violence, violence — these are not light topics to be dealing with.”

Can student journalism actually elicit change?

All the student journalists I interviewed told me that their stories were widely shared across campus. Leck’s story was picked up by the Toronto Star, and efforts to review Queen’s University’s sexual assault policy were redoubled. A new sexual violence policy was passed at Queen’s in 2016. The story that Julia Dick and I co-wrote is the most read piece the McGill Tribune has ever published, with over 23,000 views. It was picked up by the CBC and the Montreal Gazette.

Wicks, Leck, and Partridge were all cautiously optimistic about the ability of student journalism to elicit change at universities, especially regarding university policies and practices surrounding sexual assault and gendered violence. They pointed out that change is often incremental, and is a process that several campus groups work toward, not just student media.

They also highlighted the ability of traditional media outlets to amplify stories written by student media, bringing issues of assault to a wider audience. This can result in greater public pressure for universities to change.

Wicks noted that change comes in many forms.

“If my opinion piece, or my feature can encourage someone to think differently about an idea, I think that that in itself has elicited change,” she said. “If you understand journalism in having an effect as mobilizing people, then yes.”

Shrinkhala Dawadi is a freelance writer and master’s of psychiatry student at McGill University in Montreal. She writes about news, politics, and culture. Follow her on twitter @shdawadi. 

Shrinkhala Dawadi is a freelance writer and master's of psychiatry student at McGill University in Montreal. She writes about news, politics, and culture. Follow her on twitter @shdawadi.