[February 2018] Editorial: Media frenzy compromises journalistic integrity

Westport Daily Voice: “Staples High School admins failed to act when students reported sex assault.” New York Post: “Students slam officials for giving boy ‘stern talking to’ after sex assault claims.” NBC New York: “Connecticut students say vice principal told them to ‘let it go’ after sex assault claims.”

Last month, Westport made national headlines and, like with the TEAM essay contest last year, not in a good way. This time, the administration came under fire from media sources across the country for their handling of recent sexual assault complaints. But, as journalists, we could not help but notice the one-sided sensationalization of the stories.

We don’t know the validity of the girls’ accusation or what the administration is or is not doing, but we did see the biased coverage that was accepted as fact by many in the community and across the country without acknowledging the complexity of the full picture.

Quick to blame the Staples administration, specifically Title IX Officer Richard Franzis, for the handling of the claims, articles did not acknowledge the school’s legal limitations. Without an official police report, the school is, by law, unable to take action against the accused or give comment on the private case.

When reporters left out this critical restriction, they not only painted the administration in a biasedly negative light, but they failed to deliver the full story: sexual assault legislation restricts schools from taking action, not just in Westport, but throughout the country..

These professional papers also failed to conduct their own interviews, and instead recycled the same sources, using them over and over again with each new story. Because many reporters didn’t talk to sources themselves, out-of-context quotes and misinformation got passed off as fact. This lazy reporting led to a cycle in which the same perspective drowned out any other views.

The media serves an important purpose in gathering and presenting information for people to make their own judgements. However, when the media only presents the juiciest facts to create drama and garner readership, they risk also creating a singular perception of a multi-faceted story.

We know how hard it can be to cover sensitive topics. Many situations are not black and white, and it is difficult to represent all sides impartially. However, it is not the media’s job to pass judgement; it’s the reader’s. But by blatantly painting complex issues simplistically in an attempt to attract viewers, the truth of a story is lost and the media ends up deciding what we should believe.