Peabody Award-winning NPR feature on campus sexual assault provides a road map for college journalists

The inability of campus disciplinary systems to deal adequately with sexual-assault cases has been a subject of intense media scrutiny. Rarely has the story been told with as much depth and effectiveness as in NPR’s series, “Seeking Justice for Campus Rapes,” in which multiple student victims came forward and told their stories on the record, putting their voices on-air and their faces online to dramatize the frequency with which forced sex goes unpunished.

On Thursday, the producers of the “Seeking Justice” series were honored with one of 39 Peabody Awards, perhaps the most prestigious award in all of broadcasting, presented annually by the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

The series explores the impact on victims — some of whom end up dropping out of school to avoid contact with their attackers — when a student conduct system that was never designed to handle serious criminal offenses deals out little-to-no punishment.

It also highlights — for victims and for journalists — the availability of a little-known resource, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which can (and occasionally does) penalize colleges for failing to diligently investigate and punish sex crimes. Journalists covering this sensitive subject should remember to use the nearest regional office of the federal DOE as a resource — and, as NPR did, should ask tough questions if it appears that the DOE is failing to provide meaningful oversight.

While journalists often encounter pushback from college administrators who resist releasing information about the workings of campus disciplinary bodies, “student confidentiality” is a valid excuse for withholding the details of individual students’ case files but not aggregate statistical data and trends. It should always be possible at a public institution to insist on disclosure of records from which journalists can determine how often sexual assault complaints come before student judicial bodies. And private institutions ought, as a matter of student safety and transparency, to make that information public voluntarily as well.