An interaction between the UW Police Department and the UW student newspaper has prompted the university to clarify its policy regarding the rights and obligations of student journalists.
In a November 3 article, Branding Iron reporter Destiny Irwin reported on allegations that an unnamed resident assistant sexually assaulted women in a dorm. Irwin quoted Resident Assistant Rachel MacDonald, who said the incidents caused Residence Life to change its hiring practices.
UW Police Chief Michael Samp said the article brought the issue to his department’s attention. UWPD first approached MacDonald, who did not provide police with further details to substantiate the information she had provided the Branding Iron. Samp said police then approached Irwin, but Irwin said that interaction felt like an interrogation.
Irwin said she was told by the Dean of Students office that since Branding Iron reporters are UW employees, they are obligated to pass along knowledge of sexual assaults on campus. Following the incident, the university is rewriting the policy to exempt student journalists from mandatory reporting in an effort to not stifle their journalism.
Irwin is proud of how her reporting drew attention to the need for more protections for journalists, but she admits the story was sloppy.
“The allegation that prompted me to write the story about an RA sexually assaulting women in the dorms was actually unsourced at the time and unfounded,” said Irwin.
Irwin said she should have gone to Residence Life and Dining Services to ask about the allegations before publishing her story.
UW Communications Director Chad Baldwin said the UWPD concluded that the allegations of assault by an RA were unsubstantiated. And while Residence Life did add a course requirement to its hiring process, Baldwin said it had nothing to do with the alleged incidents.
“Residence Life and Dining Services leaders knew nothing about those rumors until they saw the report in the Branding Iron in November,” said Baldwin. “So that just doesn’t compute.”
Chief Samp said this incident presented many learning opportunities, like the need for the change in policy. As for Irwin, she said she’s learned a lot about verifying sources. She plans to publish a follow-up article clarifying her reporting.