Daily Beacon at Tennessee Tackles Sexual Violence & Survivors’ Stories in Top-Notch Special Issue
“UT was slowly becoming a nightmare. People would go on to tell me that the rape was my fault, that I was asking for it, that I’m lucky anyone wanted to hook up with me, that I was a slut and that I deserved what I got. But I wanted to own my story.”
Those powerful words are featured on the cover of a recent special issue on sexual violence published by The Daily Beacon at the University of Tennessee. The issue touches on a range of topics including the nature of consent, untested rape kits, social media re-victimization, male sexual assault victims, sexual assault in the LGBTQ community and the intersection of sexual violence and Greek life.
Collectively, the well-reported stories seek to raise awareness, beat back stereotypes and cut through the “impossibly tangled, broad webs of personal violence and patriarchal influence and societal pressure” which surround sexual assault and rape on and off campus.
The issue’s standout recurring feature, “Firsthand Account,” shares the personal narratives of four female students at UT who were sexually assaulted or raped. The quote on the cover — set in white against a black backdrop — comes from one of the student’s accounts.
As Daily Beacon editor-in-chief Claire Dodson explains, “These women have had terrible, life-changing things happen to them, but they are owning their stories. They are taking the power back from their assaulters.”
By providing a platform for their empowerment, the Daily Beacon presents student media nationwide with a roadmap on how to report and reflect on sexual violence and jumpstart related dialogues at their own schools.
In the Q&A below, Dodson, 21, a senior English major from Knoxville, Tenn., discusses the inspiration for the issue and the challenges she and the staff faced while putting it together.
You mention in an editor’s note that the response to an editorial last fall triggered your interest in exploring sexual violence in a more comprehensive way. Tell me more about that response.
After I wrote the editorial “Stop the Sexual Assault Shame,” I was surprised at the feedback and how positive it was. With things like Yik Yak and other social media, it’s easy to see the negative comments about people who report sexual assault — that’s why I wrote about it. So it was awesome to see people who were supportive of survivors reach out and identify with the piece and hopefully be encouraged to talk about it more on their own. And when women started reaching out, it revealed to me how necessary it was that we follow through with a special issue.
What were the toughest or most surprising challenges involved in constructing the issue?
It was difficult on many levels. First, we wanted to make sure we were covering as wide a scope on the issue as we could, and we didn’t want to isolate or offend people with the language and terms we were using. To help this, we had many people read it — our editorial staff, our adviser, another journalism professor. We also brought in one of the leaders of a great program at UT called Sex Week, Nickie Hackenbrack, who read over the issue and also contributed a column. Having all these eyes on the paper before it was printed really helped us to see holes in our coverage and fix mistakes about word choice.
Another thing that was surprisingly difficult was staff morale. Our special issue brainstorm sessions are usually chaotic and light. With this issue, there were long periods of silence as we all collectively thought up story ideas. Throughout the process of putting together the paper, everyone felt kind of weighed down with how important this topic was, especially after the first-person accounts came in. The newsroom was a lot more serious and focused than what is maybe the everyday norm for a daily college paper, which I think needed to happen for this issue to turn out the way it did. Everyone really buckled down and took such ownership of the issue, and I couldn’t be more proud of the way they handled the difficult material and committed themselves to the project.
“Our special issue brainstorm sessions are usually chaotic and light. With this issue, there were long periods of silence as we all collectively thought up story ideas. Throughout the process of putting together the paper, everyone felt kind of weighed down with how important this topic was.”
Why was the push to cover sexual violence as widely and comprehensively as possible especially important to you and the staff?
It was important for us to have a wide scope because sexual assault experiences are so varied, and there’s many parts to it. So we included pieces about the LGBTQ community and assault that happens there. We talked about Greek parties and the ways that environment could be safer. Then we tried to diversify our sourcing so it reflected college, city and state levels of dealing with assault.
For student media teams interested in sharing survivors’ stories similar to those presented in “Firsthand Account,” what advice would you offer on how to gather and present their narratives fully and respectfully?
Two of the first-person accounts were from women who reached out to me after the editorial [last fall]. They also came after a semester of good coverage from our news editors on sexual assault and UT’s evolving policies. My advice to other college newspapers is to be writing about these issues consistently and be doing so in such a way that people trust you. If we had been writing bad stories with lots of errors, it would have damaged our credibility, and I don’t think people would have reached out to us.
The other two came about after our staff asked around to friends. It’s amazing what material is available just by talking to people you know who know other people. Our school is huge, but people are surprisingly connected and are willing to talk about these sensitive topics.
As far as presenting their narratives, our features editor and I read through all four stories and didn’t change anything. Then, we sat down together a few days later and line-edited for clarity — not for space. We made the design fit the content instead of the other way around. Finally, we talked to the authors of the pieces and ran our edits by them to make sure we weren’t misrepresenting their experiences. They were very responsive, and the editing was more like a conversation. It really made them more comfortable about being so vulnerable — that’s also why we granted anonymity to the women who requested it.