It’s not easy to convince victims of sexual misconduct to tell their stories. But Rachel Otwell, a reporter for NPR Illinois, has learned how to win their trust.
She starts by giving out her cellphone number. Victims can call anytime, day or night, she says, and she’ll pick up. When they get to talking, she makes sure they know she’ll keep their confidence: If someone asks to speak anonymously, she’ll guarantee that she will never share their name.
Now, Otwell might have to stop making that promise.
As a reporter for NPR Illinois, owned by the University of Illinois (UI) at Springfield, Otwell is technically a university employee. (Approximately two-thirds of NPR member stations are owned by, or affiliated with, a college or university.) Until now, she’s had complete editorial independence.
But after Otwell reported a major investigative story on sexual misconduct at the university — published in partnership with ProPublica — administrators demanded that Otwell turn over the specifics of her reporting, citing Title IX laws which compel schools to protect students from sexual assault and harassment. Under those laws, they said, Otwell is considered a “responsible employee,” meaning that she has to report — “in detail” — any incident of sexual misconduct to the university’s Title IX coordinator, including those involving victims who have decided not to share their stories with the school.
“Getting these stories out there is impossible without being able to talk to people on the condition of confidentiality,” says Otwell. “As a reporter, there is a lot of trust you have to earn, for good reason … and I can’t get to that point if I first have to say, ‘Hold up a second, I might have to report everything you say to the Title IX office.’”
While working at NPR Illinois, Otwell joined up with ProPublica to investigate instances of sexual assault and harassment perpetuated by professors within the University of Illinois, specifically looking at how the system worked to play down and cover up the allegations. The first in a series of articles, outlining allegations against seven different professors at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, came out in late August.
NPR Illinois heard from the university a few days later. At a community advisory board meeting, Otwell says, a Title IX officer announced that Otwell, along with other NPR Illinois reporters, were not authorized to grant confidentiality when speaking to alleged victims.
In conjunction with Otwell’s reporting, ProPublica issued a questionnaire soliciting more stories of sexual misconduct at universities throughout Illinois. The questionnaire asks for names and email addresses, but promises that ProPublica “won’t voluntarily publish any personal information you share without your explicit consent.” This kind of form can be an important reporting pathway, Otwell says, because victims of sexual assault and harassment are often reluctant to come forward publicly. But university administrators took particular issue with its promise of confidentiality, she says.
“The University of Illinois System has determined that requiring media employees to adhere to the ‘responsible employee’ reporting requirements is in the best interest of our students and would not violate any constitutional or other legal protections,” says Thomas Hardy, executive director for University Relations.
“Responsible employee” reporting requirements are generally a good idea, ensuring that incidents of sexual misconduct don’t go unnoticed by University officials, says Erin Buzuvis, a professor at Western New England University School of Law who specializes in Title IX. In this case, Buzuvis adds, it’s easy to see why the UI would want to enforce the policy, even for a university-employed reporter.
“The biggest thing that gets universities in trouble under Title IX — both in cases brought by victims saying that the response was not enough, and in cases brought by respondents saying that they went too far — is to deviate from their policies,” says Buzuvis.
There aren’t any guidelines for how an issue like this might play out. Reporters and editors at NPR Illinois have been scouting for similar cases at other university-affiliated public radio stations, with no luck.
Most states, including Illinois, have some form of a reporter-privilege statute, says Don Craven, a press rights attorney based in Springfield, Ill., who has been advising NPR Illinois on the case. Under the First Amendment, journalists generally have the right not to reveal names and details about their sources. If the government wants to obtain those names and details, Craven adds, the state’s attorney would have to subpoena the journalist, compelling them to testify before a grand jury. What’s unique here, Craven says, is that a state university is requiring Otwell to disclose information as a condition of her employment.
“What they’re doing collides with historic principles of a free and independent press,” says Craven. “People feel much more secure, talking to an independent reporter, rather than a government employee that they know is going to fill out some kind of report.”
When Otwell started at NPR Illinois, she went through the online sexual harassment training required by the university. Through that program, she learned that she is considered a “responsible employee.” But she always assumed that pertained only to her office space: If she heard about an incident of sexual misconduct involving one of her colleagues, she knew she had to tell the Title IX office about it. She never imagined the “responsible employee” status would extend to her reporting, she says.
Editors at NPR Illinois and ProPublica were surprised, too.
“NPR Illinois is editorially independent of the university, and neither we nor station officials believed that tips generated by our questionnaire might somehow be covered by the university’s Title IX policies,” ProPublica’s deputy managing editor Charles Ornstein wrote in a statement.
After consulting with Craven, Otwell says, NPR Illinois wrote to the university, requesting for their journalists to be exempt from sharing any information they find in the course of their reporting process. The university has full discretion to grant that kind of exemption, says Buzuvis. But the university denied their request.
NPR Illinois issued a response on Thursday, calling on the school to “protect First Amendment rights.”
No one is entirely sure what will happen next. For now, ProPublica has promised not to give NPR Illinois reporters access to tips shared with them via text, email, or over the phone. Otwell and her colleagues also will not be able to see responses from the questionnaire.
But shutting out Otwell could have serious consequences on the sexual misconduct stories that come to light at the University of Illinois. As a local reporter, based in Springfield, Otwell is tightly connected with the college community. Students and professors know her name. If someone decides they want to talk, she can meet them in a coffee shop on campus that afternoon.
“Regardless of the intent, this will have a chilling effect,” says Otwell. “What’s at stake here is the ability to report on sexual misconduct, period.”
The worst part of this news, she says, is that victims are going to hear about it. They might skim an article about the conflict between UI and NPR Illinois, and assume all reporters have to share their notes with the University.
She knows it will take a lot to win back their trust.