The cover of the February issue of the College of Charleston's student magazine, The Yard, is a striking image. Except for the publication's name and the date of the issue, the cover is bare, just a photograph of a frightened looking woman with mascara running down her face and her eyes pleading for help as a hand covers her mouth. But as powerful as the cover is, the article inside falls short, failing to deliver the story about recent allegations of sexual assault on campus that CofC students deserve.
Following an out-of-place, tacked-on dramatization of a college date rape, the article proper begins with a lead that mentions the alleged April 2012 assault of a CofC student that "made local headlines." Unfortunately, the story did not make headlines until late last year, and only after the victim's father became unhappy with the college's handling of his daughter's case. There was no reporting on the case at the time of the alleged assault by The Yard or cisternyard.com, the website for Cistern Yard Media, the group that handles all CofC student publications.
The latest Yard cover story does not fully address the April 2012 case or any of the other assaults reported over the last two years on the CofC campus, and the piece does not address accusations that the college's police department and administration mishandled the investigations. The question is why?
Reached by e-mail, one source at the Cistern Yard says that the student media organization has chosen not to report on the alleged sexual assault in order to avoid making accusations without proof. This argument rings hollow, though. For starters, CofC has refused to release the names of the four male students accused of sexual assault, so there are no names to be named by the paper. Secondly, any student of journalism learns early on in their studies how to write a story that reports on an incident without making false accusations. There is a reason the word "allegedly" appears in every single crime story.
In the Letter from the Editor that opens the latest issue of The Yard, Cistern Yard Media Editor-in-Chief Sarah Sheafer attempts to explain the reasoning behind their long-delayed coverage of the April 2012 incident. In part, Sheafer acknowledges that they had heard rumors of an assault — specifically that the administration was "hiding the details in order to protect athletes" — and they chose to investigate it. However, Sheafer says that the Cistern Yard staff was hampered in their investigation because the CofC's Honor Board refused to release information about the alleged sexual assault. Sheafer then notes that she is on the school's Honor Board, a body comprised of students, faculty, and staff that hear complaints against students and that mete out punishments when and where appropriate. The alleged April assault was one of the cases they oversaw.
I have discussed the matter of conflict of interest before in this column, and this is another one. It is difficult to believe that any student media organization would have at its head someone who also sits on a board charged with judging allegations of misconduct, sexual or otherwise, against her fellow students and who was unable to discuss these matters with her own staff. To say that this violates some standard of journalism is an understatement, although it helps explain the lack of coverage that the Cistern Yard staff has given sexual assault and other public safety issues.
Reporting in college is difficult work. I know, I've been there. Sheafer is right when she argues that there is not a conspiracy or cover-up lurking behind every story, but that does not mean you don't write about them when you find them. During my semester at my college paper, we reported on a lack of emergency lighting in some dorms, the reason why dorms are overbooked with students, and, yes, a story on sexual assault, and somehow we still had time to cover sports, entertainment, and events.
Instead of routinely covering matters of public safety or student welfare, the Cistern Yard functions more like a public relations outlet for the school than a student news organization. They are seemingly content to push out constant updates on the school's sports teams, pen relatively tepid pieces on campus events, and produce "humor" videos. Occasionally, pieces touch on campus issues, such as recent stories about a new dining hall and new majors, but the overall tone of the website portrays a campus without the slightest hint of any problems. However, no community is perfect. And the ones that seem like they are often harbor the worst problems of all.