‘Timing was important’

(Alex Aldana/The Red & Black)

By Anila Yoganathan

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ATLANTA — When members of the University of Georgia community began coming forward with reports of sexual assault on Twitter, it was up to my team on the student newspaper, The Red & Black, to act quickly to document the allegations and reach out to sources.

The social-media posts ranged from the ages some individuals were assaulted to personal notes and details on what they said they experienced. Some would go on to name their alleged perpetrator(s) either on their personal account or through anonymous Twitter accounts set up in the community.

A large part of the story involved how this movement at our predominantly white university was started by Black women students and alumni, a population that has been consistently underrepresented and undercovered.

Timing was important because I knew there was a distinct possibility that the allegations could disappear from social media, and with them, the sources who may want to speak with us. Within the day, I put together a team of three other senior reporters to begin the reporting process. Eventually, we would also have a fifth reporter join us as well.

So we started by screenshotting at least 59 posts, organizing them and extracting information and data from them to place into a spreadsheet. By the time we began this deconstruction, though, the most active — and anonymous — Twitter account shut down.

It was an emotional time, reading over each tweet, internalizing it and then deciding how it fit in with the others. In the months after, I had to go through these posts again and again, pulling out themes such as whether these experiences involved alcohol, drugs, force, coercion, a member from Greek life, an athlete or more. I revisited the tweets so often that I knew some of the names, circumstances or stories by heart.

What unfolded next was one of the hardest parts of the reporting process — finding and reaching out to sources. We divided them up into categories: those who shared reports and those who Tweeted with commentary or support.

In our minds, if we didn’t get a sufficient number of sources on the record, then we couldn’t write an accurate and detailed story. And we each needed to do prep work to build trust with our sources.

I spoke with mentors, other reporters and an expert involved in victim advocacy before we began our interviews. They explained to me how to maintain a professional boundary with our sources but also how to let them guide the interview. With that knowledge, I then taught my teammates. As their editor, it was my responsibility to make sure their interviews and contacts with sources went smoothly.

Prior to the interviews, I made sure that our sources were aware of the terms “on the record” and “off the record.” I also let them know that if at any point they would like to stop the interview or needed a break, they just had to let us know. We also checked in with them before and after interviews.

After all of this, I learned that conducting these interviews involved bringing out a different side of myself as a journalist. I wasn’t just a reporter looking for answers. Instead, I was a reporter who was there to listen without judgment. I learned how to exhibit compassion while also doing my job. I learned how to take in what they were telling me and save it for a time to process on my own.

I tried to sit in on at least one of each of my reporter’s interviews as well as doing my own to ensure sources were comfortable during the process. We made sure to conduct video interviews during the pandemic as another way to build trust, allowing the sources to see who we were and for us to see them.

It took time to build that trust and conduct multiple rounds of interviews.

In total we interviewed three sources who shared reports on Twitter and about eight sources who commented and shared support on Twitter. We also spoke with experts, including a police sergeant in the local police department’s special victims unit, a local therapist, the director of a local victim’s advocacy center and a UGA alum who works with a victim’s advocacy center.

In that time, multiple issues surrounding sexual assault and misconduct in college settings became clearer, and while I started with a draft for only one story in December, it became clear in January that we had more than we realized.

When we began to edit, it became three. During a second round of edits, the work turned into a five-part series. Last summer, we could not have even imagined one story, let alone five.

  • In Part 1, we provide an overview of the events from last summer, how the movement at UGA was started by Black women students and what their reports mean today.
  • In Part 2, we did a deeper dive, looking at how last summer’s movement came to be and what impact it had in the UGA Twitter community.
  • In Part 3, we explore how elements of campus culture, such as parties, Greek life and sports, can perpetuate rape culture, as highlighted by some of the reports from last summer.
  • In Part 4, the team took a look at the types of barriers to reporting survivors face, particularly for college students and Black women.
  • Part 5 takes a deeper look at the definition of consent and how a lack of proper sex education and open dialogue about consent can put individuals at risk for sexual violence.

Each part looks at a different aspect of last summer and experiences with sexual assault and misconduct in college among students. For the most part, we knew that some of these situations involved issues that people think generally contribute to the potential for sexual assault or harassment — alcohol, drugs, a misunderstanding of what consent is, hero-worship of athletes and the secrecy surrounding Greek life.

But situations being generally understood and actually being documented are two different things. For one thing, I personally learned that maybe I, and people in my life, do not truly know what consent is. Speaking with our sources taught me that as college students, some of us may not be prepared for the campus lifestyle that can perpetuate rape culture.

It took time to find research and experts to contextualize that information. It took time to be able to talk about each of these aspects within the context of race, and how Black women students and alums may also be dealing with additional barriers to being heard.

We also needed time to reach out to those accused, which included getting responses from fraternities and sororities whose members were named. We also reached out to the university for official comment.

It took time for us to do it right.

I graduated last December and continued to work on the story with my team through an internship this past spring and another this summer. We published the series on June 30. As of now, the team has not planned any follow-ups, but there is still more to look at.

I think one of the reasons it was so important to do this story was, at the very least, to document what happened last summer. This really hit me not during an interview but after one, when I had turned off my recorder and was just chatting with the source, who later reiterated on the record:

“It’s sad, because I think so many survivors came forward. And then when we realized we’re coming forward en masse, we were like, ‘Surely there’s going to be some kind of action, some kind of accountability,’ ” Veronica (a pseudonym) said. “But now, there wasn’t. Nothing happened. Nothing happened, like, that is the most shocking and disappointing part of it all.”

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