When Leah Sprock clicked on The Cincinnati Enquirer’s recently-published video series on sexual assault — for which she was interviewed about her experience as a victim — she was shocked to learn the newspaper had given her explicit, revealing testimony equal footing with perspectives of accused rapists. The Enquirer defended the series as “journalistically sound.”
She first told the newspaper she wanted her interview retracted from “The Sex Talk,” and then later asked that her story be featured in a separate video. She was rebuffed by Enquirer reporters Kate Murphy and Meg Vogel, and their editor, Amy Wilson.
“We would have been remiss to not speak to everyone on all sides,” Wilson said in an interview with The Miami Student.
The series features interviews with two young men accused of sexual assault, among many others. Sprock, a senior at Miami, said she wanted no part of a conversation that gave the accused a platform.
Sprock’s protest was amplified on social media, with supporters accusing the Enquirer of misleading Sprock into believing the piece was a work of advocacy and of not fully informing her of the full scope of the project, leading to a lack of “informed consent.”
According to Cornell Law’s Legal Information Institute, informed consent is, “An agreement to do something or to allow something to happen, made with complete knowledge of all relevant facts, such as the risks involved or any available alternatives.”
Sprock and her supporters allege that while the project was framed as a “conversation,” it was never explicitly explained to her what that conversation might look like.
What began as an attempt to have a conversation about an issue plaguing college campuses across the country has morphed into a heated debate as to what level of explanation journalists owe to their interview subjects and how we can ever hope to talk about sexual assault — both on college campuses and in society — without causing further harm to the victims in these cases.
The Enquirer began searching for interview subjects for “The Sex Talk” over a year ago.
“We began to realize that honest conversation about our culture and this issue – with people from all sides – was missing,” Kate Murphy, the higher education reporter for The Enquirer and a member of the team who developed the project, wrote in The Enquirer’s Aug. 5 special print edition.
Amy Wilson, the editor for the project team, said in an interview with The Student that they had no idea who they would get to agree to an interview when they first began seeking subjects.
“We initially started with nine interviewees, and then it grew because we realized there were more pieces to the story,” Wilson said.
The project ultimately included material from 24 interviewees who represent a range of perspectives: Victims, accused individuals, parents, police, lawyers, Title IX coordinators, a pastor, violence prevention advocates and students.
Sprock was put in touch with Murphy through a friend on campus who knew she was a capable storyteller and had relevant experience to share.
Sprock had written a blog post in which she recounted the night of her assault.
“I wrote about my assault,” Sprock said. “So I sent it to [The Enquirer], and then they wouldn’t leave me alone.”
Sprock said The Enquirer’s attempts to encourage her to take part in the project were feverish. They even offered to drive to Cleveland to interview Sprock over a school break at her convenience.
“But I was worried if I decided to back out, I would be wasting their time driving all the way there,” Sprock said.
For several months, Sprock corresponded over email with The Enquirer team. Eventually, she agreed to conduct the interview at The Enquirer’s Cincinnati bureau.
“We were so shocked when she came to the studio and decided she didn’t want anonymity to tell her story,” Murphy said.
The Enquirer, in partnership with USA Today, published the project as a video series. It was also featured in The Enquirer’s Aug. 5 special print edition.
“We wanted to get a collection of people who would not ordinarily share the same space and put them in that same space,” Murphy wrote in the Aug. 5 issue. “We wanted to make you feel like you were sitting across from the person.”
“It could have been done correctly,” Sprock said. “They needed to be sensitive. I was vulnerable with them, and I would have liked to be kept in the loop. I felt blindsided.”
In order to mimic a conversation, Murphy said, the videos were cross-cut between multiple interviewees as they answered the same question, as though they were sitting in the same room.
But after seeing the project, Sprock felt reservations about the role she played in relation to others featured in the conversation – especially in relation to John Doe, one of the men accused of sexual assault.
“Seeing his story shown right after mine scared me,” Sprock said. “Sure, I agreed to do the interview, but consent has to be fully informed. That doesn’t just apply to sex. It literally felt like they were stealthing me.”
(Stealthing is a form of sexual assault in which a penetrative partner removes or otherwise tampers with a condom during sex without the receptive sexual partner’s knowledge or consent, according to the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law.)
Sprock says she had no idea the Enquirer team intended to interview people accused of sexual assault.
Had she known, “I probably wouldn’t have agreed to be a part of it,” she said.
To be clear, John Doe is not the person who assaulted Sprock. But at first glance, it looks as though he could have been. His testimony falls directly after hers.
For instance, two journalism professors whom The Miami Student discussed this story with were both under the impression Sprock and Doe’s cases were related. While neither had read the entire series, which does provide clarification, their impressions illustrate a larger point, that the average reader may have missed that distinction.
More than that, though, Sprock wishes the project had played out differently.
She wants, if being removed entirely from the series isn’t possible, “to redo the video and separate our parts. Make it clear we aren’t associated and make it clear his story doesn’t negate mine.”
Sprock takes issue with what she calls a lack of communication between herself and the Enquirer team as the project was fleshed out over the course of a year – much longer than initially anticipated.
While the Enquirer team had told her, “We’re talking to students, Title IX coordinators, police, parents, lawyers and others,” Sprock said this was not transparent enough.
“They should have said, ‘and maybe perpetrators,’ if they wanted to be transparent about the process,” Sprock said. “I also had to reach out every month or so to ask for updates. They never did so on their own.”
She alleges she was not made aware of the Enquirer’s partnership with USA Today until after she had already conducted the interview. Because she did not want her parents to see the interview, the reach of a national outlet concerned her.
Sprock believes the rights of the accused and false allegations take up too much space in the series in proportion to the actual numbers of false allegations.
Out of the 24 people interviewed for the project, six could be construed as on the side of the accused and six on the side of the victim, while the remaining 12 are neutral.
A 2014 White House report claims that only between two to 10 percent of reported rape cases are false. But, as reported in The Atlantic, ample research has shown no good empirical data on false rape complaints exists, according to a working paper series from the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.
Sprock said the apologies the team sent in response to her concerns over the project once they released it were “condescending.”
She believes The Enquirer team should have been trained in trauma-informed reporting, and that they should reckon with the consequences of this project. Regardless of The Enquirer’s intentions, she said, the project caused her and others pain.
“It’s similar to committing microaggressions,” Sprock said. “Yeah, you may not have meant to do this, but it happened, and you have to recognize why it should have been different.”
When Sprock felt as though her complaints were falling on deaf ears, she took to social media with the help of various student organizations on Miami’s campus.
The Collective, an informal student group on campus created to bring student leaders and activists together “to promote love over hate” wrote a Facebook post defending Sprock’s point of view.
“After seeing the published story, our comrade asked #ArrogantAmy to remove their name and image from the piece,” The Collective wrote. “We reject the claim that #CorruptKate and #ManipulativeMeg just wanted to ‘lift’ our comrade’s story and that this project was ‘always about understanding’ for this simple reason: if you TRULY are attempting to be an ally for SURVIVORS and not perpetrators then you would understand the very basic concept of revocation of consent. These three women have shown they have no respect for the consent of survivors.”
Clara Guerra, a senior chemical engineering major and a founding member of The Collective, added in an interview with The Miami Student that she was frustrated with The Enquirer’s handling of the situation.
“We were very thoughtful in how we went about this,” Guerra said. “We were trying for accountability. We needed the social media rage and fury to help survivors.”
Part of the so-called “rage and fury” led to death threats phoned in to Wilson’s office number.
“It’s interesting to me that a discussion about a form of violence against women – sexual assault – would be met with threats of another form of violence against women,” Wilson said.
Guerra weighed the moral conflict that resulted from the social media campaign she led.
“I don’t advocate for violence,” Guerra said. “But I do advocate for accountability. If these people felt pressure because of this, that’s good.”
As a reporter for The Enquirer, Murphy sees things another way.
Murphy believes it is clear, through the combination of text and video, that Doe’s case is in no way related to Sprock’s.
“Nothing we did was to sensationalize the subject in any way,” Murphy said. “Everything we did was to try to make people understand such an important topic in a new way.”
Murphy said the length of time the project took was not up to the reporting team. Due to their partnership with USA Today, The Enquirer was on USA Today’s schedule in terms of how soon the project could be coded online. The timing of the school year was also a factor in the release date, as they wanted it to be released at the start of the semester.
Murphy believes she informed Sprock about the details of the project, “to the best of my ability at the time.”
“We said, ‘We’re talking to students, Title IX coordinators, police, parents, lawyers, and others,’” Murphy explained. “It should be understood that, as a journalist, I have a responsibility to tell this story from all sides. One of those sides includes the side of the accused. But it’s not my job to make sure whether or not the other subjects I interview are OK with you when I ask to interview you.”
Murphy said she thinks she told Sprock about the Enquirer’s partnership with USA Today before the interview occurred, but couldn’t find documentation of doing so. She replaced her cellphone over the course of their interactions and lost some of their earlier communications that way.
“I usually always say I’m an Enquirer reporter with USA Today,” Murphy said.
Murphy maintains that a majority of the interviewees in the project were advocates for survivors.
She was also upset by the social media posts that included emails sent between herself and Sprock.
“They cut out important parts and didn’t accurately depict what was said,” Murphy explained.
Murphy showed The Miami Student the full email exchange between herself and Sprock that had been partially screen-shotted to omit parts related to the apologies Murphy offered when she realized how upset Sprock was after “The Sex Talk” was published.
“There was power in every word that she spoke,” Murphy said. “I wish she could have seen it that way.”
The conversation will continue this week on Thursday, Sept. 20, in a journalism 101 class in Williams Hall, where Murphy and Vogel will both take part in a panel discussing the project and the fallout