Changes to U of T’s Sexual Violence Centre parallel recent global events

Re: “Sexual violence centre sees structural changes in leadership”

Changes to U of T’s Sexual Violence Centre parallel recent global events

Just this past weekend at the Golden Globes, women in the entertainment industry made a bold statement against sexual violence. Many prominent actresses invited women’s rights advocates to accompany them to the event, and together they raised awareness for the #TimesUp campaign, which raises money to help pay the legal fees of sexual assault victims.

This, along with movements such as the widespread #MeToo campaign, suggests that our culture is beginning to face up to the startling realities of sexual violence. In many respects, the current discussion we are having will lead to seismic changes, as it should. In others, changes will be small, but should nevertheless not go without their due praise.

The recent changes made by the university to restructure the Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre, for instance, is a relatively small change. The centre has split a portfolio between two staff members, stating that delegating responsibility in this way will ensure each part of this portfolio is granted more time and attention.

The willingness to make this change seems to indicate that those in charge actually care about the work they do and about improving their services for students. This sentiment is also supported by the fact that that the centre promises to try to minimize disruptions, vowing that students who seek assistance over a period of time will be able to work with the exact same staff.

It is unclear whether the restructuring of this portfolio was in direct response to the current conversation taking place, or merely in the spirit of improving services long-term. However, any attempt to improve the quality of care to those who have suffered from sexual violence should be noted and appreciated, particularly within the current social climate.

Vidhant Pal is a graduate student at the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering.

Putting trauma in print

As sexual assault allegations continue to surface in the media, journalists must critically examine their responsibilities as storytellers and public informants

Putting trauma in print

Significant media attention has been focused on the explosive accusations of sexual assault and misconduct recently leveled against some of the most powerful men in entertainment and politics. As story after story has been broken — from Harvey Weinstein to Kevin Spacey to Louis CK — the voices of those victimized by sexual violence have reached the ears of international audiences.

More disturbing still is that many of these highly publicized outcries are paralleled by the experiences of the people around us. The social media campaign #MeToo has emboldened hundreds of our peers to share that they have been victims of sexual violence and harassment. Tamsyn Riddle’s human rights complaint against Trinity College and the University of Toronto for allegedly mishandling her sexual assault case is still ongoing. Around the same time the CK story came out, one of The Varsity’s masthead members received a wholly unsolicited pornographic photo from another student.

Sexual violence is not limited to what is portrayed by international headlines: it is a nefarious reality that will affect most people in some way during their lives. It is also something that has proven very difficult to talk about for many people. These cases involve vulnerable persons and deeply intrusive information, not to mention facts that can be muddled by stereotypes and by the competing interests of the implicated parties.

It is the media who are given the incredibly important task of consolidating the facts into a narrative, of informing the public in the way that is both ethical and true. In light of the sensitive nature of sexual violence cases, journalists must critically examine the means by which they carry out their duties in this respect.

On November 15, in partnership with Silence is Violence, The Varsity hosted a panel entitled “Responsible Reporting on Sexual Violence.” Led by Globe and Mail reporter Robyn Doolittle, Toronto Life writer Lauren McKeon, and  activist and co-founder of grassroots organization femifesto Shannon Giannitsopoulo, the discussion centred on how media professionals can adopt appropriate reporting practices and reconcile any legal or ethical conflicts they encounter.

In the Unfounded series Doolittle spearheaded at the Globe, it was revealed that one in five claims of sexual assault in Canada are dismissed by police as baseless. While some complaints may indeed have been unfounded, in other cases, blatant negligence or misogyny on the part of police forces — such as in the famous case of Doe v. Metropolitan Toronto Commissioners of Police — have left complainants out in the cold, aggravating feelings of fear or mistrust when dealing with police in general.

When complainants do not feel comfortable dealing with police, or they feel as if their cases are not being taken seriously, the media can play a role in helping them achieve justice. In this sense, journalists are often known both for blowing the whistle on powerful people and for battling against efforts being made to bury the hatchet.

The Harvey Weinstein case is particularly galling given the complicity and wilful blindness demonstrated by Weinstein’s many enablers, and the lengths to which the producer went to cover up his actions. In a follow-up to his original exposé in The New Yorker, Ronan Farrow revealed that Weinstein had enlisted ex-Mossad agents to get close to some of his victims and mine them for information, sometimes under the guise of being women’s rights advocates. Journalists who were in dogged pursuit of Weinstein, including Jodi Kantor of The New York Times and Farrow himself, were also targeted by Weinstein for investigation.

Given the influence of the media in shaping people’s perceptions of events, journalists must ensure that their work does not further contribute to the conditions that can make coming forward about sexual violence so difficult. At the same time, many people are genuinely concerned about the influence media coverage might have on the public’s perception of accused persons. What is often alluded to in this regard is the presumption of innocence under section 11(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which requires the accused to be presumed innocent until the  Crown can prove the charges against them beyond a reasonable doubt and before an independent and impartial tribunal.

The presumption of innocence is an important and often misconstrued idea that, in the context of sexual assault cases, squarely applies to representatives in the criminal justice system. Given that the media is neither a criminal law institution nor a representative of the government, it does not owe the accused the same right; rather, it finds its obligations within defamation law, an entirely different set of standards.

Nevertheless, media professionals are also required to be watchful of baseless allegations — in acknowledgment that a false or misleading story can potentially ruin the life of the person about whom it is written. As Doolittle pointed out, journalists tend to be extremely cautious when writing about sexual assault, including through the use of words like ‘alleged’ or ‘accused’ when discussing claims yet to be confirmed by the courts.

Reporting on these stories can therefore involve a delicate balancing act, one often sorted out case by case. The discussion that took place at the panel last week provided insight into the steps journalists can take to ensure they are engaging in appropriate practices.

For one, journalists should be keenly aware of the impact stories might have on the people represented in them. Before publishing the Unfounded series, Doolittle gave each of her interviewees the option to be quoted anonymously or to withdraw from the story altogether. She was careful to emphasize the importance of explaining to complainants how their lives would be affected by going public with their stories.

Another point of caution pertains to language usage. In a guide entitled “Use the Right Words: Media Reporting on Sexual Violence in Canada,”  femifesto advises journalists to omit details about the accused that might serve to imply that they are not ‘the type’ to commit such acts. This is to avoid the pitfalls of media attention centred on people like Brock Turner, a former Stanford student who was convicted of assault with intent to rape an intoxicated woman. Turner was often referred to in headlines as a “Stanford swimmer” rather than, for example, ‘the convicted felon.’

Finally, accusations made against certain people cannot be differentially treated on the basis of the institutions in which they work, or ‘the type’ of people we think they are. As allegations against Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, Mark Halperin, and others have shown, the media itself is hardly immune to outbreaks of sexual misconduct. An anonymous spreadsheet entitled “SHITTY MEDIA MEN” — the virtual embodiment of a whisper network — circulated online last month, allowing women to document their disturbing experiences with men in the media. This means that journalists should not only take great care when reporting on the experiences of others, but they must also watch for any violence happening around them.

Reporting on sexual violence is an immensely important responsibility, and the integrity and critical self-reflection that must underlie journalistic practices in this regard cannot be understated. The sheer number of accused abusers and misogynists seemingly crawling out of the woodwork might make us enraged or pessimistic, particularly since so many stories festered for years before being brought to the surface. But as McKeon put it, the current momentum of these stories also provides journalists with an opportunity to shed light on those not being told.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email editorial@thevarsity.ca.

Responsible reporting on sexual violence

Robyn Doolittle, Shannon Giannitsopoulou, and Lauren McKeon joined The Varsity to discuss responsible journalism for difficult subject matter

Responsible reporting on sexual violence

At the end of the last academic year, my friend Tamsyn Riddle announced she was filing a human rights complaint against U of T and Trinity College for their handling of her sexual violence complaint. Shortly after, I was elected as The Varsity’s Features Editor. Throughout the summer, while working a nine-to-five job, I began preparing potential feature stories for this year. Following the aftermath of ex-CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi’s sexual assault acquittal, I was adamant that the issue of sexual violence needed to be covered in-depth in my section — I just didn’t know how.

It was sometime during my two-hour commute to work that I came up with the idea for a series on the subject. I wasn’t entirely sure how it would look, but I knew it would be a multifaceted endeavor.

In the middle of the summer I caught up with Riddle in a small Annex diner. I wanted to get her opinion on the potential series. She liked the idea, agreed the issue should be covered, and expressed interest in writing a feature on her experience reporting her assault to the university.

Her article was published on September 25. In the process of editing the story, I had multiple conversations with the Editor-in-Chief and Riddle herself on whether to name faculty and staff members relevant to her story. Because the story was a first-person narrative, it didn’t make sense to reach out to those mentioned for comment. Instead, with Riddle’s permission, we included an editor’s note at the top of the article explaining that “allegations made toward the faculty members and staff members identified in this article are unproven in court;” Riddle could write an open account of her experience, and The Varsity could protect itself legally.

The conversations we had in the newsroom regarding this article were crucial. We all recognized the importance of publishing the story, but the path to doing so was not clear-cut. I wanted Riddle’s story published, but I also wanted to ensure I was being fair to all those involved. Ultimately, the topic of the Responsible Reporting on Sexual Violence panel, hosted at The Varsity on November 15, stemmed from this tension: how should journalists cover stories of sexual violence in a respectful and responsible way?

I had the privilege of hosting this panel discussion and moderating it with Riddle. The Varsity collaborated on the event with a sexual violence activist organization at U of T that Riddle is a member of called Silence is Violence. The panelists came from an array of backgrounds and spoke from varying perspectives. Shannon Giannitsopoulou is the co-founder of femifesto, a feminist organization based in Toronto. She is also a contributing writer for “Use the Right Words: Media Reporting on Sexual Violence in Canada,” a guide for the media when covering issues concerning sexual violence. Her perspective was valuable at the panel because it is not from inside the media itself, but rather from working to educate those who work in the media and how they should cover the subject.

Lauren McKeon, our second panelist, has primarily worked in magazines. She is currently the digital editor at The Walrus and a contributing editor at Toronto Life. McKeon also taught at Humber College and is the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism. Her article for Toronto Life, “Fifteen years of silence: I was raped three times in less than 10 years. I knew all of my attackers. This is my story,” was an honest and raw portrayal of the experiences of a sexual violence survivor. I was grateful to have her speak at the event.

Our final panelist, Robyn Doolittle, broke one of the largest stories in recent Canadian history on police treatment of those who formally report their sexual assaults. Her investigation took approximately 20 months, during which she explored instances of police dismissing sexual assault cases as “unfounded” — essentially, when police believed the assault never occurred. Before this “Unfounded,” article, Doolittle wrote for the Toronto Star covering former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Given the breadth of her coverage and implications it has had on policy, we were happy to have her attend the panel.

With the unique experiences of these three women, the conversation was extremely insightful. It explored questions that I had as a student journalist who has covered this topic, and it showcased perspectives I hadn’t considered. In this vein, I thought it was fitting to break down the key issues discussed at the event — for the public, for journalists, and for myself.

We need to take this moment now as journalists to look at what stories aren’t being told…what we’re missing, what we’re going to tell, and how we’re going to tell it.

SEXUAL VIOLENCE REPORTING IN THE MEDIA

Over the last few weeks, the outcry of sexual assault allegations against multiple men in Hollywood has been astonishing. Riddle asked the panelists how these stories and similar ones impacted conversations about sexual violence and its media coverage.

Giannitsopoulou began by mentioning that, when working on femifesto’s guide in 2011, a lot of these large stories were not yet published. She’s pleased that the guide was created before the Ghomeshi case and the Harvey Weinstein scandal because it’s readily available at a time when reporters need it.

Giannitsopoulou also discussed the importance of diversity of stories, paying particular attention to whose stories are told and which stories garner attention and space. She said, “Indigenous women from Saskatchewan that were missing… have 3.5 times less coverage than women in Ontario that were also murdered and missing. And they were less likely to have images of the women.” Giannitsopoulou continued by pointing out that Indigenous women who are shown in newspapers are more likely to be “on the corner of the page and not on the front page.”

McKeon agreed with Giannitsopoulou, saying, “I think we need to take this moment now as journalists to look at what stories aren’t being told… what we’re missing, what we’re going to tell, and how we’re going to tell it.” Given the increasing coverage of this subject, McKeon said that “now’s the time that there is this appetite for [sexual violence coverage] and people are really listening… which is both encouraging and a little depressing.”

Doolittle discussed the impact these stories have had on policy given the increased attention. She specifically spoke about the implications of her Unfounded series: “since Unfounded ran in February… something like half of the police services in this country have reviewed thousands of sexual assault cases, they’re passing policies around having supervisors involved in decisions, they’re doing a training overhaul that takes the neurobiology of trauma into account, the federal government has committed a hundred million dollars to address violence against women.”

MIN HO LEE/THE VARSITY

TERMINOLOGY IN SEXUAL VIOLENCE STORIES

Language was, unsurprisingly, discussed at length. I asked the panelists what process journalists should follow when choosing language and phrasing about sexual violence. The question stemmed from my understanding of sexual violence terminology, specifically the common use of the term ‘survivor’ over ‘victim.’

Acknowledging that wording can be “tricky,” Giannitsopoulou stressed the importance of ensuring the consent of a source when deciding how they will be identified in a story: “I personally prefer the word ‘survivor.’ I think it underlines resilience. But some people don’t like the word ‘survivor’, some people prefer the word ‘victim’ because it speaks to their experience of healing.”

While objectivity is key when reporting, Giannitsopoulou mentioned that all language has connotations and that “no language is neutral.”

Doolittle mentioned that the “Use the Right Words” campaign Giannitsopoulou has worked on in femifesto has taught her a lot as a journalist. “What it’s really taught me is that journalists are very careful about some of the language they use around sexual assault allegations and not careful around allegations for other crimes.”

Instead of removing the term ‘allegedly’ when reporting on sexual violence, Doolittle suggested that news reporters and investigative journalists actively include the term when referring to other types of crime. In doing so, the term ‘allegedly’ is no longer associated with sexual violence but rather all unproven crimes. Additionally, Doolittle doesn’t use the terms ‘survivor’ or ‘victim’ in her reporting unless a court ruling is made — she often uses the term ‘complainant’ instead.

“If I say someone was a victim of sexual assault, I am saying it happened. If I say they were a victim, I am saying it happened. And, it’s not that I don’t believe them… but I do the story a disservice by not being as objective as possible,” said Doolittle.

McKeon spoke on the relationship between language, communication, and trust, saying that once trust is broken between a reporter and their source there’s little way to reclaim it. Because sexual violence survivors already face high rates of skepticism, confidence in a reporter for accurately sharing their stories is imperative, McKeon added.

HOW #METOO AND SOCIAL MEDIA ACTIVISM SHAPES COVERAGE

Given the virality of the #MeToo campaign following Weinstein’s coverage and the popularity of the hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported a few years earlier, I was interested in what the panelists thought about social media activism, if it has helped progress conversations, and if it has influenced their work.

McKeon said that social media activism encouraged her to come forward with her own story, and that online activism and hashtags have the potential to build a community. However, she said that journalists should use online sexual violence trends as “a launching off point.”

“What we have to do though is find a way to move beyond those hashtags in our reporting, because they don’t tell the whole story,” said McKeon.

Doolittle expressed that the power of #MeToo was in demonstrating both explicit instances of sexual violence and injustices that women face on a daily basis.

Giannitsopoulou discussed the subject of social media activism and the #MeToo campaign as requiring nuance: “I’m glad that people are sharing their stories, but I don’t want survivors to feel like if they’re not feeling safe or if they don’t want to share their stories that their experience as a survivor is not valid.

“I would also not like to put the onus on survivors to have to keep telling our stories when we know one in three women, one in six men have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, and [for] trans and non-binary folks it’s disproportionately higher than that,” said Giannitsopoulou.

Throughout my process of organizing and moderating this panel, one common theme stood out: consent in reporting. While there are a variety of considerations to take into account when reporting on issues of sexual violence — and I definitely learned a lot — it’s important to remember that, as McKeon stated, “No survivor owes you their story.”

It is crucial for us as journalists to ensure open communication, respect, and to uphold the consent of survivors in each step of the publishing process. This includes consent with terminology, consent to going on record, and consent to sharing their story.

— With files from Priyanka Sharma.

MIN HO LEE/THE VARSITY

Watch the full livestream on the panel on Facebook.

Addressing campus sexual violence requires more than just a policy

#MeToo, Our Turn, and community members shed light on the need for consultation, awareness, and education about sexual violence

Addressing campus sexual violence requires more than just a policy

If you’ve been on social media over the past few weeks, you will likely have noticed the hashtag #MeToo. It was initially coined around 2007 by activist Tarana Burke as a uniting cry for survivors of sexual assault. It was resurfaced by actress Alyssa Milano in the wake of the sexual harassment allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein.

Hundreds of thousands of people have come forward to share their #MeToo stories on Twitter and Facebook. It is not difficult to imagine that many more had stories they did not feel comfortable disclosing on social media.

In light of this campaign, it is fitting that Our Turn, an advocacy group comprised of 20 student unions across Canada, released scores evaluating the sexual violence policies at 14 universities. U of T’s sexual violence policy received a C. The policy scored points for aspects like defining consent effectively and having “faculty and staff… processed under the same [sexual violence policy] as students,” but its education and prevention programs were scored much lower. The policy also lost many points for its formal and informal complaint process. While we have certainly made progress since the policy was put into effect in January, the university still has a long way to go.

U of T’s sexual violence policy has its strong suits. For instance, it includes a clear definition of consent: it must be ongoing, can be revoked, and cannot be obtained in situations where the person is incapable of consenting, such as due to intoxication or in situations of abuse of power or authority. The policy also preserves the autonomy of complainants: they can choose to whom they want to disclose their assault, whether to report it, and whether they wish to pursue civil or criminal justice action against the accused. Finally, the policy applies to all members of the university community, regardless of their role at the university or relationship to the complainant.

While the policy seems promising on paper for these reasons, there is still much to be improved upon. For instance, education and prevention programs are mentioned, but much of the focus placed is on dealing with the issue after it has already happened. The goal should be to ensure that nobody is hurt in the first place by proactively addressing rape culture on campus and finding meaningful ways to educate students and staff about consent.

Trinity College student Tamsyn Riddle, who filed a human rights complaint against the college for its alleged mishandling of her sexual assault case, said it best. In a feature for The Varsity, she wrote, “Sexual violence can only end through the dismantling of the power structures that feed into it.”

While a university sexual violence prevention director repeatedly claimed that students were involved in the policy’s creation and consultation process, many student groups and activists disagree. Ellie Ade Kur, founder of the U of T branch of advocacy group Silence is Violence (SIV), said that the consultations were inaccessible, and that the university did not effectively address most of the concerns that were raised. In fact, when SIV put up posters detailing the stories of survivors of sexual violence at U of T and the horrific responses of various U of T officials, the university promptly removed the posters, “in accordance with the university’s Procedure on Distribution of Publications, Posters and Banners,” according to spokesperson Elizabeth Church.

I hope that U of T recognizes that policy creation is only the first step in adequately addressing sexual violence. The next steps are clear: we need a much better prevention and education program, as well as a better complaints process.

Most importantly, we need to listen to survivors and activists. It is unfortunate that with campaigns like #MeToo and SIV’s posters, the onus was on survivors of sexual violence to come forward and speak — community services should be proactive enough such that survivors are not single-handedly forced to sound the alarm on their own trauma. But, now that they have, it is time for us to listen.

Adina Heisler is a third-year student at University College studying English and Women and Gender Studies. She is The Varsity’s Student Life Columnist.

Editor’s Note (November 2): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the university hired people to remove SIV posters. The university removed the posters themselves. 

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Governing Council claimed that students were involved in the sexual violence policy’s creation and consultation process. This claim was made by a university sexual violence prevention director.