Daily Pennsylvanian Tackles Student Sexual Violence in Special Series ‘Surviving Silence’

The Daily Pennsylvanian is attempting to penetrate the silence surrounding college students and sexual violence.

This past week, the student newspaper at the University of Pennsylvania unveiled a four-day series in print and online exploring a range of related issues — from the complex nature of consent to the reasons why so many student victims decline to report instances of rape and sexual assault.

separate poll of nearly 1,000 undergraduates at the Ivy League school revealed “students are, in general, broadly under-informed when it comes to the resources offered on campus [for students affected by sexual violence], despite the fact that knowing a victim of sexual assault at Penn is relatively common.”

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As the description for the series, titled “Surviving Silence,” explains on its homepage, “Sexual violence touches the lives of countless students at colleges across the country, and Penn is no exception. Despite its widespread nature, sexual violence is, for many, a taboo topic.”

2In recent semesters, the student press has played an integral role in tackling this taboo, increasingly investigating incidences of sexual violence and ensuring the voices of student advocacy groups and student victims are heard.

For example, last October, an Amherst College student’s very personal recounting of an on-campus sexual assault went mega-viral and briefly crashed the website of the college newspaper that published it. Former Amherst undergrad Angie Epifano wrote that she became “sickened by the administration’s attempts to cover up survivors’ stories, cook their books to discount rapes, pretend that withdrawals never occur, quell attempts at change and sweep sexual assaults under a rug.”

Separately, this past spring, The Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill pulled the rug out and ran it atop its entire front page. In a special page-one editorial, editors called for a “complete overhaul” in the way rape cases are handled at UNC and other schools nationwide.

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The Daily Pennsylvanian‘s “Surviving Silence” push was spearheaded by lead reporters Will Marble and Sarah Smith. In the brief Q&A below, the pair discuss their motivations for launching the series and the work involved in its creation. They also offer advice for student news teams interested in putting together a similar series of their own.

What motivated you to tackle this series — especially in such an in-depth, multifaceted way?

Will: I first started thinking about reporting on this topic in January. Other reporters had covered the administrative changes to how Penn handles sexual assault that came about after the “Dear Colleague” letter [sent in April 2012 by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to schools across the country “explaining its interpretation of Title IX and outlining the steps it believes colleges must take in response to sexual assault on campus”]. But I noticed we had a lack of personal experiences to supplement the policy reporting. Last spring, the high-profile controversies at schools across the country made me even more curious to explore the issue at Penn.

When we started reporting, I think it hit both of us how huge this topic is and how many interrelated issues there are. To do it justice, we really had to look into every angle we could think of.

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What went into putting the series together? And what were the most challenging parts?

Sarah: The first step was reporting — lots of it. We started the project in January and interviewed administrators, faculty, staff, student leaders and survivors to get as clear a picture of the issue as possible. Near the end, one of the most challenging parts was sifting through our interview notes and trying to synthesize everything we had heard over the past nine months into coherent articles with clean angles.

There was a lot of coordination between departments to present this series to make it stand out. We’re lucky to have incredibly talented design, photo and web teams who made both a stunning print design and the website we’re hosting the series on. They did an amazing job.

What is a specific part of the series you are especially proud to be posting or publishing?

Will: I’m really happy with how well our poll turned out. We put a ton of work into it, trying to make it as accurate and scientifically rigorous as possible. I think having that data helped us a lot in distilling down what the important issues are, and it also gave us a much more solid footing to write about trends we had noticed anecdotally.

What is your advice for other student news teams interested in tackling sexual violence in a meaningful way or launching a similarly ambitious series?

Sarah: It sounds self-explanatory, but if you want to tackle sexual violence, be sensitive. If people are brave enough to share their stories with you, make sure they’re comfortable with how they appear in your writing.

As for doing a bigger series: It’s intimidating to start a project on a huge issue like this. What helped us get this done was constantly planning out manageable chunks of reporting that we needed to get done.

I’d also advise anyone taking on a larger project to be extremely flexible in terms of how long it will take. I couldn’t count the number of times we thought we were close to being done our reporting, only to realize that we had to go back for something we had missed.

Related

Penn Student Columnists to New York Times: Campus Romance Not ‘Dead and Buried’

Boston University Student Criticizes Student Paper for Joking About Rape, Assault in Crime Log

Daily Tar Heel Runs Historic Front-Page Editorial Calling for Sexual Assault Reform

5 Major Obstacles Journalists Face When Covering Child Sex Abuse

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