The Medium’s Very Bad Message
Last week, the female student who was raped last November in a storage closet at the University of Saskatchewan decided to drop charges in the case. The local paper, the Saskatoon Star Phoenix was the first to pounce; publishing the following article, that was promptly pulled from their website:
Campus rape probe dropped
Woman denies story fabricated
Darren Bernhardt of The StarPhoenix
The young woman who claimed to have been the victim of a vicious sexual assault on the University of Saskatchewan campus last November has asked police to halt their investigation.
Police and university officials won’t say why the woman has suddenly withdrawn her complaint. In an interview with The StarPhoenix on Monday, the woman, Carol (not her real name), denied rumours sweeping the university that the assault allegation was a fabrication, claiming the police have DNA evidence from her attacker.
“It’s been through the data bank and everything. The police are the ones who told me there is DNA,” she said. Carol said she told the investigating officer Thursday to close the case because she “can’t live with this anymore — the badgering and everything else from the police.” She wouldn’t elaborate on what she meant.
“I really don’t want to comment, I’m sorry,” she said. “I just want it to go away. I can’t handle it. I need to go on with my life.”
No charges or arrests were ever made in relation to the incident “and nobody was ever identified as a suspect or someone responsible,” noted Saskatoon police Staff Sgt. Kelly Cook. He confirmed a letter was sent to the U of S to inform officials that the investigation was over. He wouldn’t comment on whether police are looking into the rumours that the assault allegation was false. “Of course, in any investigation, if evidence supports something other than the original allegations, that would be looked at,” Cook said.
Carol was 22 on Nov. 28 last year when she claimed to have been attacked in the Arts Building washroom between 10:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. while at the university studying for exams. At a press conference held shortly after the alleged assault, a statement was read out on her behalf by her mother, Marilyn. The statement said that Carol suffered a broken wrist, marks on her neck, vaginal bleeding and had her fingernails ripped off during the struggle with her attacker. She had been wearing acrylic nails at the time of the alleged assault, her mother told The StarPhoenix on Monday.
Carol’s mother continues to stand by her daughter. “Now she understands why victims don’t report (incidents to the police). It hasn’t been a good experience,” Marilyn said. “Her sergeant (the investigating officer) was wonderful but the process — the whole entire system — wasn’t good. But she definitely didn’t make this up.”
Marilyn refused to explain what problems her daughter had encountered. She said Carol began term two of the university year in January 2004, but was two days into it when she decided she couldn’t take it and left. “She’s hoping to continue her education again in September at another university.”
Carol’s complaints have engulfed the U of S in an atmosphere of apprehension. Subsequent pressure by students and the community prompted the university to launch an external review of all safety and security measures, which is still underway.
Tina Merrifield, senior communications officer at the U of S, said on Monday the university remains committed to moving forward with those initiatives, regardless of the reasons Carol dropped her complaint. Merrifield wouldn’t say anything about the incident or Carol’s change of heart.
Carol’s accusations came on the heels of an attack that occurred that summer at the Little Stone School House on campus. An 18-year-old woman was there working alone during the day and managed to fight off her attacker. A man was arrested the following day while vandalizing a women’s washroom on campus. He was charged with sexual assault and vandalism and is currently awaiting trial.
After Carol’s alleged attack, university officials came under heavy criticism from students for not making the campus safer after the first incident. Some complained of a “complete unwillingness on the part of the university to recognize that there’s a problem and to try to deal with it.” Campus security stepped up hallway patrols after the second incident, but some students said it was too late and that their confidence and feeling of security had been shattered.
The public outcry was immediate:
Story shows why women avoid reporting rape
Saturday, March 27, 2004
I cannot even begin to express the outrage that I have because of the story Campus rape probe dropped (SP March 23) concerning the rape on the University of Saskatchewan campus.
Your coverage of the event has been appalling. The story of the vicious attack made the third page when Posh Spice was on the cover for wearing a vintage U of S sweatshirt. But now that the victim wants to heal and move on with her life, you carefully, so as not to open yourselves up for lawsuits, hint that she fabricated the event.
If the police believed that, she would have been charged with filing a false report.
Instead, you have victimized and traumatized her all over again. Your coverage is inexcusable and disgusting.
It reaffirms for me why so many victims of sexual assault do not come forward, because when they do they are forced to relive the trauma again and again.
You should be ashamed.
Coverage of rape story irresponsible
Saturday, March 27, 2004
I am extremely disgusted with the reporting practices of The SP. The manner in which the story Campus rape probe dropped (SP March 23) was fashioned — by consistently using forms of the word “claim” — clearly suggested that the victim of this assault made up these events.
Additionally, while the original reporting (in November) of this violent sexual assault was relegated to the less-than important pages of The SP, the obvious questioning of the validity of this event has been boldly plastered on the front page.
Let me assure you, as a close friend of the victim, this assault was very real and did happen.
It is important to note that The SP will not have to deal with the vile after-effects of this rape, while the courageous survivor will continue to experience lifelong ramifications.
The newspaper has handled this irresponsibly. This clearly demonstrates why very few women report being sexually assaulted.
And her is my two-cents on the subject:
To Steven Gibb -Editor, Saskatchewan Star Phoenix:
I find your publication of the story about the rape victim at the University of Saskatchewan irresponsible and distasteful. As the brother of a young woman who was sexually assaulted and murdered at a Canadian university, and who similarly had her name and reputation dragged through the mud by local press, I find your actions deeply disturbing.
I really don’t think you realize the extent of the damage you’ve caused. I know this woman “Carol”. I have been working with her since January trying to assist her in summoning the courage to face her detractors.
And now this.
Where was your voice when it was needed? Why not focus on the fact that this woman managed to pull together a petition of over 1,000 signatures, and made the University hold a public forum on student safety? – a forum which forced the University to conduct an independent safety audit. You alone are not to be blamed; this is symptomatic of the Canadian press. Last month I tried to drum-up interest in Carol’s story from several CanWest papers, including your own – I was either shut down or ignored; the general sentiment being that student rapes “didn’t play to your readership.”
Yet false allegations that a victim lied, this is newsworthy?
You people in the media, you never change. You like your victims packaged a certain way. In your world victims are either pathetic and supplicant, or they “asked for it”, got what we deserved… or they’re liars.
You just don’t know how to write about a person like Carol – a victim with courage, and the conviction to intelligently express her anger and frustration. She deserved better than this.
I understand Mr. Bernhardt is attending a seminar on Monday on the topic of journalistic integrity. Tell him to bring an umbrella. Better yet, tell him to apologize.