My school, Kenyon College, is currently facing a tidal wave of administrative criticism.
Two days ago, an alumnus published an open letter to the school. It discussed the school’s treatment of his sister, who, according to her brother, was sexually assaulted last fall. Though she brought the case to the attention of the Kenyon administration, no action against the alleged perpetrator was taken. As the alumnus writes, “the college concluded – both initially and on appeal – that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that it was more likely than not the college’s policy on sexual assault had been broken at all.”
The letter went viral overnight. Students, faculty and community members started having critical conversations about Kenyon’s treatment of sexual assault. Everyone had an opinion; online forums blew up, and students began attacking one another based on 140 character snippets of emotionally-charged rhetoric. Clearly, the letter had succeeded in starting a dialogue. Whether or not this dialogue was productive had yet to be seen.
Yesterday, The Thrill – Kenyon’s blog, which I help to edit – published an op-ed which sought to air the questions of a frustrated campus. Who can be held accountable for this potential miscarriage of justice? How did a policy meant to protect students fail? Who can we turn to for an honest assessment of the situation? On a campus this small, it is nearly impossible to avoid becoming personally invested in issues like this case. The article attempted to capture the spirit of a confused, frustrated campus, one which demanded the capital-T Truth of the case. As such, it wasn’t objective – it was emotional, mirroring Kenyon’s rapidly changing climate.
And yet, policy dictates that most of our well-meaning appeals remain unaddressed – or, at least, that they not be directly addressed. In emails sent to the student body, both the president of Kenyon and our Title IX coordinators emphasized their inability to comment on the specifics of any particular case involving sexual assault. Of course, this is understandable – student privacy, especially in sensitive cases like this one, is essential – but it leaves the student body and the administration at an impasse.
To his credit, Kenyon’s president has taken some action in order to rectify the situation. Earlier today, he announced that an independent board of reviewers is en route to Kenyon, ready to objectively examine the ways in which Kenyon has implemented Title IX policy in all previous cases of sexual assault, including that of the alumnus’s sister. This is due, in part, to the student body's massive, vocal response to the letter. It is also, in all likelihood, due to mainstream news outlets picking up the story.
It started with Mic, a digital news outlet that covers everything from Ted Cruz to Beyonce. It’s popular, especially amongst millennials. This morning, without contacting the college, the blog or the alumnus, Mic published an article which was originally entitled “This College Just Dealt with Rape in the Worst Way Possible.” Its construction was sloppy at best; in its initial draft, the author continually referred to the alumnus responsible for the open letter by the wrong name. Numerous factual oversights coupled with the blatantly clickbait-y title made this article seem, at best, like a laughable excuse for journalism. Later, the inaccuracies were corrected and the title was changed, but Mic’s sensationalist intentions had already been revealed. Because of its aesthetic, the article seemed to be capitalizing on the “trendiness” of assault narratives. Facts and realism were secondary – by telling the story of a woman who had been abused, the article was sure to get views.
Teen Vogue jumped on the bandwagon, too, publishing another article which contained almost exactly the same language as Mic’s. Though it provided a few more statistics about sexual assault on college campuses, it did little to contribute to the dialogue surrounding the case. As I scrolled through the article on my phone, a window popped up at the bottom of my screen. It read “RELATED: If You’ve Ever Ordered Pizza, Then You Already Unde…” The title of the “related” article cut off there, but the pop-up had revealed enough. Because I was reading about assault, I was sure to love an article about pizza.
This media attention isn’t likely to end soon. Rumors are circulating that a third news site is currently reaching out to students for comment, and some students are saying yes. Kenyon will continue to be put on blast until something changes, or until some other crisis captures the Internet’s attention.
Of course, there are good things about this kind of exposure. As I said, it almost certainly put pressure on the Kenyon administration to take concrete action to ensure the ethicality of their Title IX procedures. This is extremely important, and it constitutes a huge step forward in terms of administrative accountability. Additionally, articles like Mic’s and Teen Vogue’s continue to raise awareness about the prevalence of problematic attitudes towards sexual assault at Kenyon and beyond.
Sites like Mic and Teen Vogue, especially those which reach out to students for comment, have the potential to influence large-scale change, perhaps even at the national level. If used correctly, this exposure could call attention not only to Kenyon-specific administrative issues, but to problems with federal-level legislation. A student recently published an article on The Thrill deconstructing the flaws of Title IX – imagine something like that appearing on websites which attract millions of visitors each day. Exposure, even if it is momentary, carries implicit power.
But outside of all of these enormous positives, there are some substantial drawbacks. Teen Vogue and Mic’s willingness to take a story like this, slap on a radical title and brand it as “news” points to a larger trend of sensationalizing sensitive narratives in order to attract views. Mic’s original title is particularly disturbing – with so little information available, it is impossible to call our college’s reaction “the worst” without substantially inflating the narrative. This isn’t to say the student’s story is unimportant; on the contrary, it is too emotional, too raw and too gut-wrenching to deserve such casually reactionary treatment. Calling this sort of reporting “journalism” disrespects the website, the author and those involved in the narrative it conveys.
Sexual assault is not a selling point. It is horrific, and it deserves more than it has been offered by pop culture sites which thrive on hyperbole. Journalistic enterprises which claim to publish “news” should treat their subjects more carefully.