Verbum Ultimum: Reframing the Narrative

Recent coverage of College news by media outlets has been, at times, misleading.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 11/8/19 2:20am

Every year in October, Dartmouth and similar institutions are required to report on their campus crime and security in accordance with the Clery Act. Topics subject to reporting include law enforcement authority, incidence of alcohol and drug use, sexual assault, and domestic or dating violence. Of particular note in this year’s report for Dartmouth was that the number of reported sexual assaults increased. 

In October, the Valley News reported on sexual assault at Dartmouth, beginning the article with, “The number of rapes reported at Dartmouth College increased by more than 41% in 2018, according to annual statistics released this week by the college.” WMUR 9 also reported on this issue, comparing this nearly 42 percent increase at Dartmouth with the nearly 50 percent drop in sexual assault cases at University of New Hampshire, which decreased from 49 incidents to 27. 

While this 41 percent increase conjures up an impression of a dangerous campus, the actual number of reported incidents went up from 24 in 2017 to 34 in 2018. In an interview with Kristi Clemens, the College’s Title IX Coordinator and Clery Act compliance officer, The Dartmouth learned that some incidents reported had actually occurred in earlier decades but were only reported in 2018, in part due to a national shift that encourages women to report rather than stay silent on occurrences. 

Though much of the reporting on this topic eventually discussed nuances in this increase, many outlets featured this statistic as news in and of itself. Though technically accurate, promulgating the 41 percent increase statistic not only leads readers to potentially believe a different reality — that Dartmouth has suddenly become much more unsafe than in recent years — but also detracts from the nuances of the occurrence, like the rise in willingness to report. This increase in reporting is a stark reminder of the reality of sexual assault in our community, and it should not be whittled down to a simplistic statistic. Instead, it is important that we treat these numbers honestly and as the complex figures that they are. As Mark Twain once said, there are lies, d—n lies and statistics.  

For comparison, The Dartmouth reported on this increase in sexual assault reports in an article titled, “Yearly crime data show increase in reports of sexual assault in 2018.” Instead of leading with the 41 percent statistic, this newspaper chose to investigate possible reasons for the increase in reporting — indeed, the statistic is not used at all. The article looks at the recent lawsuit regarding sexual misconduct allegations against three former professors and the change in leadership at the Title IX office, both which may have encouraged more victims to come forward. The article also acknowledged the complex nature of reporting sexual assault cases and addressed the limitations of the Clery Act and reported numbers. 

In reporting on difficult and complicated stories, news organizations have a responsibility to give their readers the most accurate picture as possible. While at times, this involves reporting clearly and directly on difficult news, it also involves framing news fairly.

This discrepancy in reporting can occur even with stories as simple as event coverage. When Joe Biden visited campus this August, Biden’s off-handed remark about a hypothetical assassination of President Barack Obama made at the end of his speech became a national story in outlets like The Hill and the New York Times. The statement in question was, “Imagine what would have happened if, God forbid, Barack Obama had been assassinated after becoming the de facto nominee.” According to The Hill, Biden’s remark “raised eyebrows” among audience members, and the New York Times’ Aug. 23 article was headlined, “Joe Biden, Recalling ’68, Asks Audience to Imagine Obama’s Assassination.” While this may have been a way to frame the event in a fresh way, particularly given the day-to-day humdrum of the campaign stump much of the national coverage on the Biden event emphasized a point that audience members did not react to in ways the articles suggest they did. 

There are many ways to tell the same story, and it is enriching to see how different journalists shoulder the charge of portraying information precisely and accurately. However, these examples are a sobering reminder that information, while still “true,” can be misleading by portrayal. 

Our aim, of course, is not to cast distrust on this community’s or society’s journalistic organizations writ-large. Instead, we reflect on the many ways information can be presented. Moreover, we recognize the importance of independent reporting — not just in terms of the freedom of the press, but in avoiding the perpetuation of characterizations that take events out of context or give misleading impressions. It is also important, then, to cast a wide net: to read critically, think critically, and digest information as it relates to one’s own lived experiences.

The editorial board consists of the opinion editors, the executive editor and the editor-in-chief.