Reporting on sexual assault can often be a difficult task, but for Canadian Press reporter Laura Kane, the impact her stories have had on how assaults are handled on college campuses makes it all worthwhile.
Kane has written close to a dozen stories about campus sexual assault. Her reporting began in 2015 when Steven Galloway, a former University of British Columbia professor, was accused of sexually assaulting a student.
“It was through my reporting on that and my interest in that story that the whole issue of campus sexual assault started to take on this massive magnitude,” Kane says. “I got into the story first through Steven Galloway, then through this (other) case at UBC I started to realize that these women across Canada were fairly connected. This sort of informal activist network had emerged.”
One of the main challenges with reporting on sexual assault is FIPPA, B.C.’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. “There are advocates who say that universities and other institutions, especially in B.C., hide behind FIPPA in order to avoid transparency,” Kane says. “It can be extremely frustrating for everyone involved.”
Kane believes that, sometimes, universities would probably like to defend themselves and share more information, but they cannot have cases disclosed. “In other cases, where you have a student who’s coming forward to me, sharing her name, and giving very specific details about her assault, and about the university’s response, it remains frustrating that the universities will say they can’t comment for privacy reasons, when the person at the centre of the case is okay with those details being public.”
She says that if you are not a person involved in the case, you must put in a Freedom of Information request to get the investigator’s report, which does not always go through. In some cases, even the victim can have difficulty accessing the report, as only the accused has full access.
Kane says that she has mostly had positive responses from the public regarding her stories, but that is not always the case for the women she reports on. “I don’t read the comments on Facebook, so I’m sure there’s a lot of hatred there and a lot of disbelief and scepticism towards these women’s stories. There’s definitely still a public conversation that needs to happen in Canada around the way we respond to women who say they’ve been sexually assaulted.”
Kane argues that when reporting on sensitive subjects, the reporter must be careful not to trigger their subject by making them talk about it more than necessary. “You want to protect the experience of the survivor; you don’t want to re-traumatize them.”
She cautions reporters to be careful about vicarious trauma when reporting on things such as sexual assault. “Hearing the details of someone who has been assaulted can impact you as a person, perhaps especially as a woman. It’s easy to become somewhat cynical, or perhaps, disheartened about the system. You hope that as a reporter, your stories will have a public impact. You’re not an advocate per se, but you also hope that when you publish a story, the public will sit up and pay attention.” Kane recommends that journalists read Use the Right Words: Media Reporting on Sexual Violence in Canada, a guide for reporting on sexual violence.
Kane is hopeful that conversations around sexual assault will continue to improve in Canada.
“I think you need to have a bit of optimism as a journalist. It’s an industry where you can easily get consumed by negativity.”