Right now, college newspapers should be covering campus sexual assault like there are no other stories.
A recent New York Times story highlighting the problems of how colleges mishandle campus rape complaints points out another important concept that college journalists should take note of: the "Red Zone."
“A period of vulnerability for sexual assaults, beginning when freshmen first walk onto campus until Thanksgiving break,” is how the article defines the Red Zone.
This term actually has some study behind it, which includes:
- 2008 Journal of American College Health study that shows support for a Red Zone and “highlights the need for investigating local norms” for unwanted sexual assault,
- 2007 Campus Sexual Assault study showing that more than 50% of sexual assaults occur within the Red Zone,
- 2003 Department of Justice report on acquaintance rape of college students that claims “college students are the most vulnerable to rape during the first few weeks of the freshman and sophomore years.”
This “Red Zone” story should be a story in every college newspaper’s back-to-school issue.
West Virginia University actually has “The Red Zone” listed on its main website under sexual assault resources noting these risk factors:
- Students are meeting new people and trying to fit in, and they may participate in certain activities for the first time
- Students have less parental supervision and increased independence, which may lead to certain behaviors such as experimenting with alcohol or other drug
- Students may be new to the city, and may be adjusting to a new environment and getting oriented
The awareness and prevention of sexual assault should merit its own regular coverage at the beginning of every school year.
College journalists are in a prime position to find out—better than any other reporter—what is actually going on at their school. Given the national discussion and local interest in this topic, you could probably run a sexual assault story every week. (Really, you could make it a designated beat).
How you should do it:
Write a story to raise your readers’ awareness of the Red Zone. Research tips on how students can protect themselves in this crucial time period. Does your school hold awareness seminars for new students? Does the college provide incoming freshmen with advice regarding sexual assault prevention? Find out what your campus police have to say about it.
Make open records requests to campus police for incident reports of sexual assaults reported within the last couple of school years. Compare and contrast. Are there more reports within the August to November timeframe?
Obviously, there is a lot more to campus sexual assault than the Red Zone. Many advocates point out that women are bombarded with prevention messages while more attention should be given to telling men they are responsible for their own behavior. That's a good point to address in your Red Zone story and in your continuing coverage of this topic. But don't wait until you can cover every angle of campus rape. This is one prevention story you can do by the time your fall term starts that actually can reduce the risk to student on your campus.
I know how college journalists can be when it comes to procrastinating back-to-school coverage. I beg you to use this idea and run with it now.
Also, for those college newspapers with some money to spare (none of them), don’t forget about the Associated Collegiate Press/College Media Association National College Media Convention Oct. 29-Nov. 2 in Philadelphia. There will be lots of programming about campus rape with sessions led by experts from the Student Press Law Center, College Media Association, Society of Professional Journalists and student media staff members who have done great work on this topic.
And last but not least (shameless self-plug), be on the lookout for the reporters’ guide to covering sexual assault on college campuses that I’ve been working on for SPJ this summer. It will contain everything you need to know to start much more reporting on this topic.
David Schick is a senior at the University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. He is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for Society of Professional Journalists, reporting and researching public records and FOIA issues. Twitter: @davidcschick