If getting the 5 Ws – who, what, where, when and why – is one of the first rules of covering a news story, it’s followed immediately by the need for balance. If John Smith is angry at something George Jones said, the reporter knows to call Jones for his point of view.
But how does a reporter write a balanced story if one side in a dispute doesn’t — or legally can’t — give its point of view?
Mirror writer Jacqueline Rabe Thomas – and every other reporter and news organization – has faced that challenge in covering last week’s civil rights complaint and Friday’s federal lawsuit filed against the University of Connecticut.
To recap: Seven current or former UConn students say that the university has failed to protect them from sexual assault, and that once the school learned of the assault, its response was inadequate.
Because of federal privacy laws, the university cannot address the specifics of the cases. School officials have been very open about their frustration.
“The university … cannot and will not discuss the specifics of any student’s case without their written approval. This does mean anyone is free to make any allegation they choose to, and we are extremely limited in what we can say in response,” university President Susan Herbst said last week, and again on Thursday.
Rabe Thomas talked about the challenges she’s faced. Covering the story fairly, she said, “has been difficult when you have a herd of students eager to talk to the press about how horrible UConn’s response has been to victims and the ‘rape culture’ that persists, while UConn has been guarded in their responses and unable to address specific complaints.”
So what does a reporter, and an editor, do? There is no perfect answer. But in cases like these, a good reporter is cautious, and an editor even more cautious.
Rabe Thomas and I talk a lot more about these stories than we do with less complicated subjects. What do we absolutely know happened? Is every statement attributed? Are UConn’s statements prominent in the story? We discuss headlines: Does this go too far? Is that verb too strident? At the same time, we absolutely must be fair to the students making the charges, and allow them their say.
There may be areas in our coverage of this story where we’ve not been as judicious as we should have been. But it’s not for lack of trying.
And not to miss other stories this week include:
Ana Radelat’s look at the relationship between Wall Street and the Connecticut delegation;
Arielle Levin Becker’s report that DSS clients could get wrongly dropped from Medicaid and food stamps;
Mark Pazniokas’ story of the Bridgeport hearing where Con Ed and Metro-North each ducked blame for the power outage that stopped the New Haven train for 12 days this fall.
And the story about the state’s slightly improved cash flow, by our budget guy, Keith M. Phaneuf.
For our full week’s report, go to www.ctmirror.org.