Last week, we reported that a male student allegedly raped a female student at our school. As with any sensitive story, concerns emerged within the student body and community about our coverage. These are legitimate concerns, and I address them below.
But first, the main reason for coverage: I felt the district used incomplete and inaccurate language to describe the incident.
It wasn’t their fault, however: the incident report indicates the police were called for an assault. After further investigation, the student was charged with rape. However, the police did not alert the district of this charge (and, according to Police Chief Scott Lee, they don’t have to).
So, when Principal Michael Griffith read a statement to students during ninth period Sept. 11, he described the incident as alleged assault, not alleged sexual assault or alleged rape. When the district learned of the change, and after my initial story, Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings released a statement addressing the alleged “sexual assault.”
Still, many people thought an alleged assault had occurred when an alleged rape had occurred. After obtaining the police incident report, which classified the incident as alleged rape, we broke the story Sept. 11, calling it an alleged “sexual assault.”
The next morning, after discussion among editors, we changed the language to reflect the police incident report, calling it alleged rape. We waited to change the word due to the story’s sensitivity. We wanted to fully discuss the word’s implications before using it; after that discussion, we used it.
My main message for those concerned: the student body has the right to know, with accuracy — if not in detail — what happened. They have the right to use that knowledge to inform their actions at school and in the community.
After we published, there was a little pushback. We experience this sort of pushback on many sensitive stories, so most of the comments in bold below reach beyond this incident. Here are a few general responses we heard and my response for each.
“It’s none of your business.” I respectfully disagree. The Shakerite’s primary obligation is to inform the student body. Students have a right to know what happens in their school, especially when it concerns safety and wellbeing. With that information, they can better decide how to live. In this case, our business is informing students of what happened Sept. 10. I understand how delicate this situation is, which is why we have editorial policies that protect those involved. However, when student safety is concerned, it is the business of every Shaker student, family and community member. Every person with a stake in student safety has the right to accurate information about this event. It is our job as the news organization covering the high school to provide that information.
“It hurts the victim.” Whenever we have a sensitive story, our editors discuss whom coverage will harm and whom it will help. In my view, harm comes from gossip and speculation. I hope our coverage, free of speculation, has mitigated some of that speculative harm. The Shakerite, like most professional news organizations, will not publish the names of minors who perpetrate or are victimized by crime. Speculation does not take the victim’s well-being into account; it serves only the speculators, while harming those involved. Our goal is to balance protecting the survivor and educating the student body as best we can. I feel we are doing that.
“You make the school look worse than it is.” In my opinion, the suspect hurt the school’s reputation; our coverage did not. We report what happened. We don’t make the school look worse than it is. Optimally, we get students to look at their school critically and decide for themselves what’s wrong. And when students find something wrong, some take action to improve it; they volunteer, lead groups or simply become better school citizens. Also, we do write positive stories about how wonderful our school is: click here or here. On a personal note: I genuinely love my school. I don’t seek to demean it; I write these stories because I hope to better it.
“You start unnecessary drama.” Is the drama following an alleged rape at school unnecessary? If anything, The Shakerite strives to be the antidote to the drama that students cultivate through speculative, insensitive and potentially libelous social media conversations. We create necessary discussion, not unnecessary drama. Students, parents and staff will discuss this incident, and that discussion could prompt effective reform. That reform will, we hope, prevent an incident like this from happening again. Without complete and accurate coverage, that discussion is lopsided or nonexistent. Without discussion, nothing changes.
“Let professional, adult journalists cover it.” Professional journalists could not cover Shaker Heights High School with the same scope and attention to detail that we strive to achieve; we live here. The pros cover all of northeast Ohio and can’t focus on Shaker like Shaker students can. You won’t see Fox 8 covering the Yom Kippur controversy or what the senior lounge is like. You won’t see Channel 3 covering Shaker’s grade inflation or achievement gap. We provide localized, accurate, relevant coverage for Shaker Heights and its high school. We are in a unique position to provide this important coverage, and we will continue to do so.
I hope I’ve addressed your concerns. If you have any questions or comments, please email [email protected] Additionally, anyone may submit a letter to the editor.
Shane McKeon is the Print Editor in Chief of The Shakerite.