O’Colly Cover Story at OK State Investigates ‘Sexual Assault Case in Which System Failed’
The 2,100-word investigative report — “She Said ‘No’: A Firsthand Account of Campus Rape” — is impressively thorough, unarguably eye-opening and occasionally infuriating for what it depicts. The piece spotlights the many internal doubts, peer pressures, investigative procedures and cultural norms that can leave a sexual assault victim re-victimized and feeling “like a statistic pushed under the rug.”
As McClung writes about OK State student “Ashley,” who reported a rape to campus police in spring 2012, “She was too ashamed to tell her parents what happened and felt discouraged by police officers. Ashley said because she didn’t want to spend years fighting for a case she would likely lose, she closed it. Almost three years later, Ashley sees a chaotic process in which justice didn’t play a part in. The process was so discouraging, Ashley said, she regrets reporting the incident to the police.”
McClung tells the story of this chaos, shame and regret through an assortment of primary and secondary sources — including related police reports, case files and videos of “normally confidential … victim, witness and suspect interviews” and in-depth interviews of her own which she conducted with the victim, victims’ advocates, sexual assault experts, OSU administrators and university law enforcement officers.
In the exclusive Q&A below with CMM correspondent Katie Comerer, McClung discusses what led her to tell Ashley’s story and some of the ethical decisions she made during the reporting and writing stages. She also offers advice to student journalists interested in tackling a similar story on or near their own campus.
What compelled you to tackle this story?
It all started with Ashley approaching me. She got her investigative files from the police department, and I started digging through those. … I was lucky Ashley was so open to sharing her story, and she worked closely with me throughout the entire process. After I sat down with her and listened to her story, the first thing I did was look for an angle. To tell Ashley’s story would be interesting. But my first thought was, “There has to be more to this. How can I make an impact and help others?”
I think it’s important to tell stories like Ashley’s, but I also think it’s important to look at the bigger picture. So, ultimately, I think it began with asking myself questions a reader might have and listening to her concerns on how her case was handled and looking into those. I was also fortunate enough to be able examine her investigative file, and after I met with [the] administration and talked to our assistant district attorney, I think that’s when I found my angle: There’s a stigma that comes with being a victim of sexual assault, especially when alcohol is involved.
How did you handle Ashley’s identity?
She wanted to be anonymous. We considered using her name, but we thought it could give us more freedom to talk about a lot more [by keeping her identity private]. … It allowed us to dig deeper and reveal a lot more about her case. If we had used her name, we would probably have been more hesitant to reveal so much of what we did.
“Listen to the story, and go in with an open mind. Really consider what you can do to tell the victim’s story and how you can go beyond and carry it to the bigger issue. There’s almost always more to the story. Talk to local experts, national experts, legal experts. Gain knowledge. You don’t have to use everyone in your story, but it will give your story a stronger voice.”
Do you think Ashley felt more comfortable talking to you as a female reporter?
Definitely. I think that me being a female definitely helped her open up. She shared really intimate details with me. When you’re sitting in a room for an interview [after an assault] you have the opportunity to talk to all these male officers. Sharing with another girl is a lot easier, I think, because it helps you relate much better.
How did you decide which details to include or omit — such as Ashley’s drinking the night of the alleged assault, for example?
After I had the framework of the article, I saw I had a powerful story. I wanted to be sure I did it justice and executed it correctly. It was humbling that someone let me see such a personal part of their life, and I wanted to give her story as much credibility as possible. … Too much detail can be harmful to the story, but not enough can downplay the victim’s experience. Reporting on sexual assault is different than covering over topics. It needs to be communicated with special sensitivity. …
I kept it pretty open with Ashley drinking and stuff because I think it is important for other college girls to read and understand it does happen. They shouldn’t be hesitant to call the police if something like this happened, just because they are afraid of getting in trouble or afraid to go to the hospital.
What advice would you offer student journalists interested in pursuing a similar story?
I feel like when you’re writing about a rape victim like I did make sure you keep them involved, keep them aware of everything you are doing. … Listen to the story, and go in with an open mind. Really consider what you can do to tell the victim’s story and how you can go beyond and carry it to the bigger issue. There’s almost always more to the story. Talk to local experts, national experts, legal experts. Gain knowledge. You don’t have to use everyone in your story, but it will give your story a stronger voice.