Balancing journalistic ethics: seeking truth, minimizing harm

Marjorie Kirk

Events of the last few days have created misconceptions about reporting on sexual crimes, journalistic ethics and open records review. I would like to clear up some of those misconceptions—especially for survivors of sexual crimes who may have fears of reporting to the university or police.

I was approached in March by a spokesperson for two female students who were sexually assaulted by a member of UK’s faculty, associate professor James Harwood. 

After hearing the account of what happened to these women and how a university professor would not face justice because of flaws in UK’s sexual assault policy, I knew that the Kernel would need to pursue this story. We then requested the university’s records on the investigation. 

We needed them to be able to publish anything about what Harwood had done, how investigations like this are conducted, and how settlements are made between universities and the accused that allow them to leave the university without the outcome of the investigation following them. 

Without the investigation’s report we would have no way of proving that the university and Harwood had made this settlement. We were only able to receive a cover letter of the investigation from the university. It made no mention of the charges leveled against Harwood. It made no mention of the other people he victimized, of which witnesses gave accounts. 

It made no mention of how or why he would be able to resign, receive pay and benefits until Aug. 31, and move onto another place of employment without his employers or the public knowing that he was charged with two counts of sexual assault and two counts of sexual harassment. 

We had nothing to work with to report on the bigger issue that the victims, Board of Trustees of the university, faculty and I have called the university out on: covering up results of sexual misconduct investigations of students and employees, and allowing them to shuffle around universities with no public knowledge. 

That is why the public needs access to these documents, and it is why we appealed the university’s denial of our request for the investigation to the Attorney General. 

The job of the Attorney General is to evaluate whether these documents could be released to the public in a way that would not identify victims or witnesses or violate their right to privacy, done through a process of redaction or blacking out parts of the documents. 

The Attorney General ruled that they could be safely redacted and released to the public. But the president disagreed and as a result is suing the Kernel so that no form of these documents will ever be made public. 

If he can convince a judge to agree with him, there will be a court precedent that could prevent every investigation after this, or any part of it that the public would ask for, from being accessible to the public.  

The Kernel needs to verify aspects of these investigations and are hamstrung when the university withholds these records. These records are the key to investigating the university’s actions and the actions of the accused. They show the perpetrators for who they are. 

Victims are not responsible for their assault, and their coming forward or telling their accounts of the attacks should be seen as bravery. Before any story about this case was published I communicated every detail of what I was writing to the two female survivors or their spokesperson. 

For every future survivor who would come forward I would go over details of the story to see what they were comfortable with sharing. It is their story to tell and I would not want any story I publish to cause further harm to them or identify them. 

Going over each detail with them is how I can assure that no mistakes, identifying information or information that would further victimize them becomes public. 

The Kernel and I will extend that courtesy to any victim who wanted to come forward and tell their story.