I’ve sat across from many victims of violent crime and had them share what they have suffered. The more intimate the violation the less likely they are to want to be identified.
I can appreciate this. It took me 40 years to publicly disclose that I was sexually assaulted when I was 12.
Victims often suffer in silence.
It’s difficult to know where to turn. But during the more than 30 years I’ve been in journalism, I have had others who have been violated come to me wanting to share.
Often, they don’t want their identity disclosed. And like most journalists, I’m honor-bound to abide by their wishes.
Sadly, officials at the University of Illinois would have journalists violate this confidence.
Rachel Otwell, a terrific journalist working for WUIS public radio in Springfield, has ruffled the feathers within the university community by reporting on sexual misconduct by professors.
She, along with ProPublica, published an investigation into how the university protected the reputations of faculty even after serious allegations of sexual misconduct were substantiated. Serial offenders were given paid leave and had the circumstances of their offenses hidden from future perspective employers.
Otwell’s reporting was first rate. It not only was broadcast on public radio stations, but it found its way onto front pages of newspapers across Illinois.
Along with the stories, the reporting team asked people who had experienced sexual misconduct at Illinois colleges and universities to share their stories through an online form. The form specified that the accounts would not be shared or published without permission.
It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out that administrators were embarrassed by their sleazy backroom deals coming to light. And they were more than likely worried that more allegations could be made.
But it would appear these college bigwigs have come up with a clever scheme to stifle future reporting.
University officials told Otwell’s station it could not promise confidentiality to students, employees, faculty or others who contacted the newsroom to share experiences of sexual misconduct at the University of Illinois.
How can they do this?
Well, the university owns the station. And while the journalists are editorially independent, the university said they are considered “responsible employees,” which means that like most other campus workers, they are required to pass on misconduct allegations to the institution for further investigation.
But here is the rub: the university administrators are the fellows that have been covering the trails of their miscreant professors. Now journalists investigating the university are supposed to turn over the names of confidential sources to the administration before writing a story?
Give me a break.
“I’ve been told if I don’t do this, I could face discipline up to and including termination,” Otwell told me.
To her credit, Otwell said she would be willing to sacrifice her job to protect the identity of confidential sources. But no reporter should face that decision.
A coalition of news organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union have called for the university board of trustees to exempt journalists from the requirement, much the same way on-campus psychiatric professionals are exempt.
But university officials remain obstinate.
In a letter to the university, ACLU lawyers wrote: “A survivor of sexual misconduct may choose to confide in a reporter for any number of reasons. They may want their story to help others in similar circumstances but do not want to be further identified for fear of retaliation. They may know that their experience is representative of a larger issue that should be more widely known. They may simply be uncomfortable invoking the university’s formal accountability mechanisms. In any case, the university should not close off this option for confidential disclosure.”
Journalism exists to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
That’s a lesson that some leading our universities have yet to learn.
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and freelance reporter; [email protected]