PSU, UVA Student Papers Team Up for Special Report on ‘Fraternities, Alcohol & Sexual Assault’

“I would say there’s an alcohol-sexual assault correlation, and obviously alcohol and social events are an aspect of the Greek community that, for better or worse, has been around for a long time.” – PSU Interfraternity Council president

The Daily Collegian at Penn State University and The Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia recently teamed up for a terrific special report spotlighting in stark detail the ever-tangled, dangerous triangulation of alcohol, Greek life and sexual violence at colleges and universities nationwide.

The combined long-form report by Collegian metro editor Erin McCarthy and Cavalier Daily news associate editor Anna Higgins is largely focused on a pair of high-profile recent scandals at the schools: the fallout from the Rolling Stone “A Rape on Campus” report and PSU fraternity Kappa Delta Rho’s operation of “a private Facebook group containing photos of nude, unconscious women.”

Along with the editorial content, Daily Collegian visual editor Kelsie Netzer worked on numerous top-notch graphics and a digital timeline of both incidents. Daily Collegian digital editor Darian Somers also deserves kudos for a sleepless production night overseeing the piece’s online rollout.

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In the brief Q&A below, McCarthy discusses the motivations, challenges and surprises of this rare college media tag-team reporting feat.

1What compelled the Collegian and Cavalier Daily staffers to put this report together collaboratively?

Last semester, before I became an editor, I was on the crime and courts beat at the Collegian. On that beat, you go to the daily media briefing with the State College Police Department, and at least once a week there’d be a report of a sexual assault. The police don’t provide much information on these reports, so I’d go back into the office and write up a short story with that little bit of information. Each of these sexual assault stories were so barebones and, despite their frequency, I worried that no one was reading them. I was scared the stories were so frequent and came with so little information that people would become apathetic to the problem, like “oh another sexual assault again.”

At the same time, I was reading the news coming out of other college campuses regarding sexual assault, and that’s when I first started thinking about doing a collaboration with another college paper. I spoke to our editor-in-chief Sam Janesch and our managing editor Kelsey Tamborrino and they were totally on board, and gave me a lot of freedom with this project, while supporting me throughout it.

After following the events happening down in Charlottesville, I reached out to the staff at U.Va’s The Cavalier Daily. I had a conference call with their editors in early January and they were totally on board. They then chose Anna Higgins to report on the project, so she and I created some Google Docs where we could both brainstorm possible sources at our respective campuses with questions we wanted answers to, and where later we could transcribe interviews. In March, when the Kappa Delta Rho story broke at Penn State, Anna and I had already been working on the project for two months. While that of course was an incredibly sad story, it did help us narrow our focus on the project and made the final piece, I think, more timely and impactful.

What were the biggest surprises and challenges involved in this type of crossover package/team reporting project?

The biggest challenge was putting both our reports together. We were both in communication as we were reporting and we both wrote essentially independent stories in separate Google Docs that we both had access to while we were writing. But I know I had this fear that our copies wouldn’t fit together. Luckily, they did. And then Thursday night [before the report was published the next day] was pretty challenging, but in a good way because our staff was excited to put the piece together and get it out there. Our digital editor, Darian Somers, did not sleep Thursday night just putting it together online and our visual editor, Kelsie Netzer, put in so much time designing that poster front, the timeline, presentation and all those accompanying graphics.

For me, the most surprising part was that despite the differences in both schools’ stories, students and administrators in State College and Charlottesville are grappling with the same issues and saying very similar things about these issues. We hope the story has helped keep the conversation going about such an important topic that so many people at so many — if not all — colleges are concerned about.

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