Bold claims must include more references to the facts
In case you haven’t heard the news, most cases of campus sexual harassment are committed by university professors. At least, this is the allegation levelled by Angelina Chapin in her Ottawa Citizen op-ed titled “Universities need to focus on harassment, not just on sex assault.”
Her column should be required reading for all media ethics classes, because it breaks just about every journalistic rule imaginable.
The most egregious error in this piece involves a lack of verifiable sources. Chapin’s online article fails to provide a single link so that readers can assess the accuracy of her claims.
How can anyone know for sure if “almost one-quarter of students report being victims of sexual violence,” or in the case of sexual harassment by professors “90 per cent of women choose silence” without reference to the primary documents? These figures just magically appear out of nowhere.
Second, Chapin’s statements lack supporting details. If “most” instances of campus sexual harassment are committed by professors, does this mean 50 of every 100 reported cases nationwide, or are the numbers statistically insignificant?
In an attempt to fill in the gaps, Chapin notes that “of the 137 informal harassment complaints at the University of Toronto in 2014-15, not one led to a suspension or expulsion.” This begs a number of questions. Of reported harassment cases, how many were sexual in nature? How many were valid? Was it 137 different professors or dozens of complaints levelled against a few? If not a criminal matter, what exactly constitutes an “informal” harassment complaint? Without further explanation, one is left guessing.
It’s the journalist’s duty to elaborate on all pertinent details so that the reader can critically examine truth claims. By failing to do so, Chapin obscured, rather than illuminated, discussion over sexual harassment on university campuses.
Next, statistics are used out of context. Chapin points out that “almost 70 per cent of female graduate and professional students say they were sexually harassed on campus.” But this a survey of American universities. Moreover, the actual cohort accused of sexual harassment—professors or students—is left unknown.
She again quotes from American sources, stating that “thirty per cent of respondents from Yale said a faculty member was the perpetrator” of sexual harassment. But this implies that the American and Canadian experiences are similar. We have no way of knowing the Canadian reality because Chapin does not provide a regional analysis. For example, it would be much more constructive to provide a comparison between universities with similar student populations, such as the University of British Columbia, the University of Ottawa, and L’Université du Québec à Montréal.
Instead, the evidence provided is purely anecdotal. To establish a “pattern,” Chapin discusses the case of Steven Galloway, a former University of British Columbia creative writing professor who was fired over allegations of sexual harassment, physical abuse, bullying, and an inappropriate relationship with a student. She also references a Brock University professor who sexually harassed his student. However, two cases are not representative of an entire profession.
Lastly, the issue of rape culture is not questioned; instead, it becomes central to the article’s discussion—a bold claim made by fiat—yet the merit of the term is still being questioned. Although the Ontario government uses “rape culture” in its Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act, many academic institutions, including the University of Ottawa and Carleton University, have yet to adopt the term in their sexual violence policies, though Carleton is still in consultations on their policy.
No doubt, Chapin was trying to bring to light the serious issue of campus sexual harassment. But by cutting ethical corners she and the Ottawa Citizen’s editorial staff performed a disservice to victims, since the extent of these problems are more likely to be underestimated when journalists shield their sources from the public eye.
Stuart Chambers, Ph.D., is a professor in the Faculties of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Ottawa. He teaches media ethics in the Department of Communication.