Try this at home: Q&A with Minnesota college journalists on covering sexual assaults

The University of Minnesota Duluth’s Statesman published some impressive stories last week looking at sexual assaults on campus and how they’re handled by the university. In a months-long investigation, reporters Emily Haavik and Travis Dill’s discovered that the number of sexual assaults reported each year by the school in its annual Clery Act report is dramatically lower than student surveys would indicate. Haavik and Dill also found that that the school rarely takes disciplinary action against those accused of sexual assault. In response, the university is looking to change how it handles sexual assault cases.

The Statesman‘s articles are great examples of the types of stories college journalists can do to bring light to a subject that’s often shrouded in secrecy. Over email, Haavik and Dill explained how they did the story from start to finish, with lessons that are applicable to other student journalists:

Q: What prompted you to look into issues surrounding sexual assaults at your campus? Where’d the idea come from?Emily Haavik: I went to my professor, Catherine Winter, and told her I wanted to do some sort of investigative project. We had read the work done by NPR and [The Center for Public Integrity] on sexual assault on campus, and we were interested in seeing what was going on at UMD. Catherine suggested Travis as a partner on the project and he agreed. Then when we saw the numbers reported by UMD, specifically zero in 2008, we knew there was a story.

Q: When did you begin reporting, and what were your first steps?Travis Dill: We started our investigation in January. I began by looking for the official number of assaults the university reported to the Department of Education. The few reported assaults corresponded to criminal sexual misconduct cases investigated by the campus police department, which led me to request the police records we referred to in our articles.Emily Haavik: I started arranging interviews with Health Services and the Women’s Resource and Action Center on campus, basically educating myself on sexual assault. I also put the word out that we were looking for victims of sexual assault who were willing to speak with us.

Q:With two reporters, how did you divide the work up?Travis Dill: I was The Statesman‘s crime beat reporter, so I initially focused on obtaining records from the campus police department. A great deal of the work consisted of gathering information about the issue. One source would point us in two or three directions. So we often split up a list of sources to contact at our weekly meeting.Emily Haavik: As Travis said, he handled more of the police records side. I ended up being the one to interview the victims/survivors. The rest we would split up based on our strengths, weaknesses and schedules.

Q:What types of records did you rely on to guide your reporting?Travis Dill: We relied on police reports of the few officially reported cases, studies commissioned by the Department of Justice that focused on sexual assault in the collegiate environment, and we were fortunate to obtain surveys commissioned by the university that quantified student behaviors. The surveys of student behavior were invaluable because they were anonymous surveys of students that allowed for a more accurate report of the student population that had experienced sexual assault.Emily Haavik: We also used some letters from the federal government including the “Dear Colleague” letter, and I spent some time going over the Department of Justice press releases regarding this issue.

Q:What do you wish you had known before you started reporting?Travis Dill: What made this reporting so important to me was what I didn’t know before I started. I didn’t know what to do or who to call for confidential help if I or a friend was assaulted. I wish I, and other students at the university, had known about the resources available to victims before we reported on this issue.

Q:What was the hardest part of the project?Travis Dill: The hardest part of this project was seeing the misconceptions and predatory culture reinforced by witnesses in the police records. The victims were ostracized by their friends and acquaintances if they reported the crime while perpetrators were assumed to be incapable of committing an assault.Emily Haavik: The hardest part of this project for me was getting people to talk about the issues. With an uncomfortable or controversial topic like this, it’s difficult to get people on the record. Often no one wants to stir the pot. I’m grateful to our sources who were willing to speak about sexual assault, a culture that condones it, and the areas in which our school can improve.

Q:What advice would you have for other student journalists looking to do similar types of stories about their own campuses?Travis Dill: Place the personal story of the victims at the forefront and support them with hard data on the issue of sexual assault. This was our blueprint as we focused our stories. We believed it would allow readers to overcome the misconceptions of the issue and not dismiss the victims’ stories.Emily Haavik: Don’t be afraid to ask people to talk about difficult personal experiences. Every time I put the word out that we were looking for survivors I felt uncomfortable. Every time I picked up the phone to call or I went to meet someone, I felt sick. I didn’t want to impose upon or exploit anyone. But what I found was that these people wanted to tell their stories. They were passionate about educating others and using their own experiences to promote awareness. I think they are incredibly brave. So I guess I would say don’t write yourself off as an annoyance, and give your sources the benefit of the doubt. They are talking to you because they want to.

Read all five stories in the series:

“Try This at Home” is a new SPLC feature that will interview student journalists about their reporting. Know of a reporter we should interview, or want to know more about a story? Send us an email.