Alleged Rape & the Unnamed Frat: Evergreen Editor at WSU Breaks Down Tough Ethics Call
The Daily Evergreen at Washington State University recently grappled with an intense, multi-headed journalism ethics monster. It evolved online in real time and involved a combustible mix of buzzwords including sexual assault, social media, student safety, angry readers and Greek life.
The ethical adventure began last week. As part of a front-page story on a “WSU student [who] reported waking up in a fraternity following an alleged rape,” Daily Evergreen editor-in-chief Nathan Howard decided to withhold the name of the frat “to protect the victim’s identity.”
As Howard explained in a note to readers published the next day, “I made that decision after extensive ethical considerations with the Evergreen editorial staff. While the name of the fraternity involved exists as accessible public record and may have provided further information to you, our readers, the victim’s safety comes first. … I was concerned that naming the fraternity could inadvertently identify an already victimized woman. While my staff and I hold a responsibility to inform and educate our readers, we must also weigh the information we hold against the harm it may cause.”
The digital twist in the tale: Some readers named and shared photos of the frat in comments on the Daily Evergreen’s Facebook page. Other commenters linked to the police report that provided additional details — the ones the DE had been determined to leave out of its own story.
Ethics code blue: Respect free speech? Give in to the power of the social media mob? Or stick with your original withhold-protect-and-serve-the-victim mentality?
Howard and the Evergreen team opted for the latter, deleting the revealing comments — and leaving a mix of supportive and critical responses in their wake.
In the exclusive Q&A below — part of CMM’s esteemed College Media Geeks interview series — Howard discusses the complexities involved in the paper’s judgment calls and offers advice for student journalists battling a similar set of circumstances.
What led to the initial decision to withhold the name of the frat implicated in the alleged rape?
When we originally started working on the story, we found it was an allegation made in a fraternity. There were still a lot of unknowns, but one of the biggest unknowns for us was whether or not somebody in the fraternity knew the rape allegation had been filed against them. Police records are public records, but not everybody’s checking the police log every day, so our immediate concern was if we publish a story with the name of the fraternity, somebody in the fraternity might start trying to figure out who it was that filed a complaint against one of the members.
It’s not that hard to keep track of who’s coming and going or to figure out who was in your frat house the week before. The fraternity in question, Delta Chi, is not the smallest fraternity, but it’s not a huge fraternity. So we were concerned if we published the frat’s name, either somebody in the fraternity or someone who was friends with somebody in the fraternity or even the person themselves who had done it could start trying to destroy evidence or try figuring out who [the alleged victim] was and re-victimize her. The last thing we wanted to do was identify her.
One of the other concerns was that we didn’t know at the time how far advanced the investigation was. There weren’t any investigators who were available to talk to us the first night we were reporting. So one of my other concerns was that we would print something that would jeopardize the investigation. The next day they ended up executing a search warrant of the fraternity. In that scenario, my concern would have been that whoever it was would have had time to destroy evidence before the police had a chance to execute a search warrant.
What happened next in respect to social media?
This was actually something I didn’t see coming. I figured there would be a little bit of curiosity and a little bit of discomfort at the idea we were withholding something from readers. But what ended up happening was a very heated conversation about the rights of victims, the rights of people who are accused, the rights of the media and the rights of our readers. It was very interesting and informative to see. …
There were a lot of people who were in support of our decision and a lot of people who were not in support. The people who were not in support of our decision, mostly their concerns were public safety. They were people who said, “Hey, that’s great you guys left it out of there, but if I’m going to go out to a frat party this weekend I would like to know which frat it is so I’m not in the same position [as the alleged victim].” It’s a very legitimate concern, but in this scenario we wanted to protect the identity of the victim above everything else and not give anyone the chance to identify her.
We did end up deleting comments [on Facebook]. I’ve been at the Evergreen for two years and it’s the third time we’ve done it. It’s not something we take lightly. We really dislike the idea of stopping anybody from having a conversation on Facebook. But in this scenario they were posting links to the police logs, which had the name and exact address of the fraternity.
At that point in time, we had to have a really hard discussion. A couple other editors and I sat down and said, “What do we do?” Essentially what we came to was “Yes, this is public information. But just like we weren’t going to use our paper as a platform to broadcast it, we’re not going to let people do that now at least until further action was taken by the police.” So we opted to take those [comments] down and delete them. The feedback to that was very negative — at least from the people who had their posts deleted.
“Trust your ethics. Trust the classes you’ve taken. Trust your experience. At a certain point, you must realize you have more training than your readers and you understand the big picture of an ethical decision in a way they may not.”
It’s of course tougher than ever to keep any information private, especially if intrigue exists around it. To that end, when people were starting to identify the frat on Facebook, was there ever a moment in which you thought social media had won and maybe you simply needed to provide the information along with them?
To me, it was never that social media had won. It was that — at one point in time — we had lost control of the story. What I mean by that: When we publish a story as a newspaper, the idea is entered into the public. But because of the way social media reacted in this case, it became about the Daily Evergreen and not about the rape victim.
At that point in time, I was a little bit uncomfortable — not because people were out there bashing us. I was uncomfortable because we were no longer in a position where we were educating people — because people were too caught up with [questions like] “What did the Daily Evergreen do this for? What were the reasons?” I think that was a detriment to educating people about the public safety concerns involved.
The paper ultimately named the fraternity in a follow-up report once police issued a search warrant for the frat house. What led to that decision?
The reason is that the jig was up. At that point, anyone in the fraternity or anybody who happened to be near the fraternity that day would have seen the search go down and would have known about the allegation brought against them. Secondary to that, for a search warrant to be issued, there has to be probable cause, signed off on by a judge. That was an indicator to us that this was something the police – they were not necessarily starting a manhunt but they weren’t blowing it off either. They were saying, “OK, there may be a basis for this [allegation]. Let’s look into it.” … On our end, that’s enough to put [the name of the fraternity] in the paper.
What’s your advice for student news teams who might find themselves in a similar situation?
The biggest thing is when you make a decision like this — whether or not you know if there’s going to be fallout — it’s really important from my perspective to stick to that initial decision. Not because, if you change, it will look like you’re flip-flopping. But because the reason you made that initial decision was an ethical one – assuming you’re an ethical paper of course.
When you start getting the negative feedback from your readership, it can be really easy — especially as a student — to doubt yourself and say, “Well maybe that wasn’t the right decision. Maybe the readers know best.” But I would just say: Trust your ethics. Trust the classes you’ve taken. Trust your experience. At a certain point, you must realize you have more training than your readers and you understand the big picture of an ethical decision in a way they may not.