Reporting sexual assaults on campus

My former Boston Phoenix colleague Kristen Lombardi is the lead reporter in a series on how college and university administrators respond to allegations of sexual assault. Published by the Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit investigative-reporting project, the series is the product of months of work and scores of interviews.

Lombardi reports that when law enforcement declines to step in because of insufficient evidence, conflicting stories and the like, colleges are mandated under federal law to investigate. Yet victims and alleged victims encounter a frustrating atmosphere of secrecy and of administrators who don’t always take them seriously. Lombardi writes:

College administrators bristle at the idea they’re shielding rapes. But they admit they’ve wrestled with confidentiality in campus assault proceedings because of FERPA and the Clery Act [federal laws that mandate privacy]. Confusion over the laws has reinforced what critics see as a culture of silence that casts doubt on the credibility of the process. “People will think we’re running star chambers,” says Don Gehring, founder of the Association for Student Conduct Administration, referring to secret, arbitrary courts in old England. “And that’s what’s happening now.”

The series, “Sexual Assault on Campus: A Frustrating Search for Justice,” is a vivid example of investigative journalism’s migration to online, non-profit organizations. And, as is more and more often the case with such projects, it comes complete with multimedia, additional resources and an extensive “Reporter’s Toolkit” to help news organizations follow up on the work produced by Lombardi and her fellow journalists.

Last week, Lombardi discussed her report on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.”

The future of investigative reporting?

propublica_20090831If you looked closely, you may have noticed that the cover story of the New York Times Magazine yesterday — a long, harrowing examination of accusations that the staff of a New Orleans hospital euthanized several patients following Hurricane Katrina — was a collaboration with ProPublica, a non-profit investigative-reporting foundation.

According to Zachary Seward of the Nieman Journalism Lab, the 13,000-word story may have cost as much as $400,000 (perhaps a bit of an exaggeration) to produce — a huge chunk for the Times, but in this case the paper spent nothing: a grant from the Kaiser Foundation paid for much of the reporting. It’s the sort of alternative funding model that may help to ensure the future of investigative journalism.

The story, by ProPublica’s Sheri Fink, is available not only on the Times’ Web site, but also at ProPublica.org. And starting Sept. 29, anyone can run it for free as long as proper attribution is provided.

Fink’s investigation centers on Dr. Anna Pou, a cancer specialist who may have killed several patients who, in her judgment, were near the end of their lives and could not be rescued. As with much good investigative reporting, the story is inconclusive, yet absolutely riveting in describing the despair that had settled over Memorial Medical Center — sweltering, without power and all but abandoned.

Implicit is that regardless of Pou’s actions, the real blame should be laid at the feet of incompetent government officials who abandoned New Orleans to its fate for days on end.