The Backstory: An accusation of gang rape: A football team and 7 months of silence | #College. | #Students

Luis Cruz: Welcome to “San Diego News Fix: The Backstory,” where we tackle important questions about journalism ethics and give you a behind-the-scenes look at our industry and our newsroom.

Monday marked one year since a young woman said she was gang raped by members of the San Diego State University football team at an off-campus house party. San Diego State has faced criticism for waiting more than seven months to alert the campus community of the incident. Joining us to discuss this case is Union-Tribune public safety editor Dana Littlefield, public safety reporter Teri Figueroa, Union-Tribune managing editor Lora Cicalo, and we begin with editor and publisher Jeff Light.

Jeff Light: Thank you, Luis. I think we should just start at the 30,000-foot level, and Teri Figueroa, you had a story in this weekend’s paper that you wrote with Lyndsay Winkley about the one-year mark of this pending case. Perhaps we could start by getting caught up with what is going on with this case. What do we know? What don’t we know? What’s next?

Teri Figueroa: Well, it has been a year and there’s been a lot that’s happened and a lot of waiting is still happening. What we know is that the case has been turned over from police to the District Attorney’s Office, and the DA’s office is still reviewing it, seeing what they have, what they might still need and whether or not they have enough evidence to charge anyone beyond a reasonable doubt.

We also talked to the young woman herself and we talked about what this last year has been like for her and what it meant for her for it suddenly to be October again, and she said that actually caught her off guard. She said October is triggering a lot.

She’s waiting. She wants to know if there’s going to be charges brought and she thought when she brought this forward a year ago that she kept saying to herself, “Just think, a year from now it’ll be over. A year from now, it’ll be over,” and here we are a year later and she’s still waiting. We just simply don’t know. So, it is her trying to move forward. She’s working full time. She’s looking at starting college in January. And she’s back in therapy again. So, she’s moving forward but she’s also waiting to see what’s going to happen.

Jeff Light: Yes, as I guess is the community. There are a lot of stakeholders here. Dana Littlefield, you’ve been the editor on this story from the start, and this weekend at the Festival of Journalism, you moderated a panel that included Teri and her U-T colleague Lyndsay Winkley, together with Colleen Shalby and Robert Lopez from the L.A. Times – the two reporters who broke this story a year ago – and Alexander Nguyen from KPBS. Share with us about that panel, which was a chance for the audience for the story to interact with the journalists and for the journalists to speak to each other in a way that doesn’t always happen. What was the ground that you covered in that panel? What did we find out? What did people want to know from the journalists?

Dana Littlefield: I guess what we tried to do is to explain to the audience, from the journalistic side of things, how the story progressed, how the information came to the reporters and, subsequently, how we pushed it out to the audience, and the journalistic questions we had to ask at each stage of the game, the ethical questions that we had to ask, and what our responsibilities are – both to the woman who has reported this incident and to the people accused in this incident.

I will say, from a personal standpoint, it was really gratifying to meet and confer with the L.A. Times about what their process was early on and how we have been working together and will continue to work together going forward. That was – not to undermine the gravity of the subject matter that we’re talking about – but that was a really gratifying experience, being able to see them face to face, talk about how things are going in terms of the reporting and to share that information with our audience.

So, your question, if I understood it, was about the structure of the panel itself. We started with the L.A. Times reporters, which made sense since they were the ones who broke this story. We talked about – as much as they were comfortable with sharing – how this story came to them and what was the trigger point for them in terms of when they felt they had enough to go on record with this.

What they shared with the audience was that this came to them through their long reporting on the CSU system as a whole. They had done a series of stories about conflicts, procedures, issues within the California State University system, and, specifically, the uneven discipline that has been meted out across the various campuses, and it was through that reporting – Robert Lopez was clear to point out that they had done 14 stories before they reported anything on SDSU – it was through that reporting on the system that they caught wind of this. Of course, they were very careful not to say exactly how the information came to them, but it was, broadly, through those reporting channels that they were able to grab onto this story.

We mentioned that we – both the L.A. Times and the Union-Tribune reporters – had heard of this incident early on. We had seen accusations on Twitter, etc. But we tried to convey to the audience that simply because we know of these things, or have heard of these things, doesn’t mean we’ve reached that threshold where it is ready to publish.

Jeff Light: Let me just jump in for a second to clarify. Reporting on hearsay and rumors about serious criminal allegations is obviously a difficult threshold to overcome, right? So, in this case, there were all sorts of rumors in the community. That’s different than a responsible news story. And let me jump in and ask – because this came up a few weeks ago: San Diego State has been under intense criticism because of their timetable of action – or failure to act – and how they’ve thought about that, how they’ve rationalized that or how they support that as what they believed was the right thing to do. And because of that, I caught wind of another rumor: “Oh, the Union-Tribune knew all about this story and they chose not to write the story because the police asked them not to.” Could you talk about how these things work and whether that would ever have happened at the Union-Tribune?

Dana Littlefield: The short answer is absolutely not. I mean, that rumor, that theory is preposterous. And we did talk about this to some extent during the panel and we tried to explain that simply because we have heard this information – we had no names either; neither publication had the names of the young woman or the young men who were suspected in this. Aside from going to the school and asking the questions and going to university police and asking questions there – without anything specific to hang it on – we didn’t have any confirmation.

Part of the process is asking those questions. Part of the process is figuring out how to craft those questions in a way where you’ll get answers that will actually take you somewhere, and we had kind of stalled in that regard. We had heard of something but we didn’t have anything concrete that helped us move forward. For the L.A. Times, they were able to get their hands on some documentation that did help them surmount that threshold, where it went from “Oh, we heard that this has happened” to “Oh, now here’s the proof and we can move forward.” It was the documentation that was the trigger point for them to say, “OK, now we’ve got this and actually can put it in print.” So, kudos to those reporters for getting that information and nailing it down.

Beyond that, we talked in the panel about what the focus of the stories really was, because, of course, we are talking about the incident itself: Did a crime happen? What are the details of that crime that we are comfortable in sharing and reporting? All of that is pertinent to the telling of the story. But what the L.A. Times and the Union-Tribune reporters wanted to focus on beyond that was, what did SDSU do or not do? And we talked in the panel a bit about why that’s important. That’s not to say that the allegations themselves are not important, of course, they are. But the broader issue here is we’re talking about a large campus with a large student body – who knew what, when and what was shared with that student body, and what action was or was not taken?

What the L.A. Times has taken issue with and reported – and we have as well – are the inconsistent statements that reporters from both publications have received from the university in terms of what they did know, what they didn’t know, the extent of what they knew, all of those details. Quite a bit of our panel focused on that and the difficulties and challenges of getting that information cleared up from the university.

Jeff Light: Lora Cicalo, I just wanted to revisit this ethical issue. For our listeners, what are the ethical implications around this idea that reporters would be in league with the police and helping to solve crime? Isn’t solving crime a socially good outcome? Why did Dana react that way when I floated this theory that the reason the story didn’t come out sooner was that the UT was working with the police? Enlighten me on that.

Lora Cicalo: I would say Dana reacted that way because Dana is a good journalist. Most good journalists would react that same way. Solving crime is an important act. It is not our job, though. That is the job of law enforcement, and we would never be in league – essentially, being a partner of law enforcement – in that way. We would not take direction from or see ourselves as an arm of law enforcement. That is not our role. That’s not our obligation. Our obligation is to report the truth.

Jeff Light: Right. That’s why I just wanted to point out why that’s such an upsetting and serious allegation against our journalists is that our journalists at the U-T are not in league with the police. Our job requires that we act independently in pursuit of the truth on behalf of the community. And, in fact, that’s really the underlying question in the criticism of the university: Did the university subordinate their obligations to stand up for their student body to law enforcement? Did they become an agent of the police, prioritizing the police’s work and setting aside the interests of victims in the interest of the rest of the university community, putting those things second? That’s the exact criticism of the university. So, to have this little idea that somehow the U-T did that floated out seems particularly poisonous to me.

OK, let’s get back to the story at hand. You had some questions for Dana and Teri about the story and about their interactions with the public this weekend.

Lora Cicalo: Well, I was interested in, from the panel discussion, the kinds of questions that you heard from the audience. I think one of the unique facets of the festival was this personal exposure – audience members had a chance to talk with the journalists and to pose questions. I was interested in what you heard from the audience and the kinds of questions they were posing.

Dana Littlefield: That’s certainly one of the questions that I had going into this endeavor. There we are, talking about this very controversial case, talking specifically about the criticism that has been directed at SDSU for a very long time. We are right there – at SDSU – talking about all these things, so, I wasn’t really sure what kinds of questions we would get. I wasn’t really sure who would be in the audience. We were prepared to answer whatever questions came our way, but that certainly was something I was thinking about in the days leading up to the event.

To answer your question, though, it seemed that we got a lot of questions about the procedure – how we reported things. There were questions about the journalism, which we, of course, were able to answer: Have we asked the police department about X? Have we asked San Diego State University about Y? These were the kinds of questions that we got, mostly. There was a question from a person who is employed with the university about the minutes from an Academic Senate meeting where President Adela de la Torre was questioned. We were asked about whether we were aware of that document and whether we had reported on it and an answer came straight away from Robert Lopez from the L.A. Times saying, “Of course, yes, we are aware of that document.”

Teri Figueroa: Yes. Exactly. He said that he was very aware of it, and we are all very aware of all of the documents and trying very, very hard to stay on top of what is out there.

Jeff Light: But for those of us who aren’t aware, what is this document and what was interesting about it?

Dana Littlefield: Well, that’s the thing. It didn’t contain anything that was particularly enlightening beyond what we had already reported. It was a questioning by the Academic Senate of Adela de la Torre about you what she knew and when, the university’s reaction, etc. These were all things that we had reported. I believe it was Gary Robbins who had reported on an appearance that she made in front of the Associated Students, so we were there in the room and heard her speak at that point. There was nothing particularly enlightening about this document, but the person in the audience wanted to know if we’re aware of it, and, of course, we are.

There were other questions about what we have asked for from the university as well as from police and from the District Attorney’s Office. The L.A. Times in the Union-Tribune have been working together to put out a slew of public records requests for a variety of topics, so we kind of went through a list of those things and tried to explain to the audience all the different requests that are pending right now. And we talked a bit about some of the frustration that we’ve been going through in terms of getting responses from SDSU. Understanding that we have asked them for a lot of stuff, we still do want that information to come in as quickly as possible. We are getting some responses where it’s not exactly the answer to the question that we asked, that sort of thing.

Jeff Light: It sounds to me like things yet to come on this story, Dana, are we’re waiting to hear from the District Attorney’s Office, we are awaiting next steps on the civil complaint, I think there’s some internal work being done by the university. Anything else that we should be looking forward to know next?

Dana Littlefield: Teri, maybe you can speak to how we’ve been waiting for the District Attorney’s Office and what that process has been like.

Teri Figueroa: You are correct. There are really three paths here: There’s the university’s own investigation, there’s the civil suit that the young woman has filed, and then there is whether or not there will be criminal charges filed. And on that third one, we are waiting to see what the district attorney will decide about what route they will go, and we are in constant contact with the District Attorney’s Office trying to figure out what may or may not happen and when.

Jeff Light: Aren’t there internal probes in some way in this apparatus around the university and around Title IX? I guess I’m not somebody who really has a detailed understanding of all that.

Teri Figueroa: The university is doing its own Title IX-inspired sort of investigation, because this was just off campus and it doesn’t involve a victim who was a student, so, in spirit, they’re looking at it with “Title IX eyes.” They’re doing that internal investigation to see what happened. None of the three people who have been named are at the university any longer, so should there be any sort of discipline that would come down, they’re not part of the university, so the university couldn’t do anything in that vein. There is, of course, the civil suit, which is working its way through, and then there’s the criminal investigation.

Dana Littlefield: One of the things that we pointed out to the audience – you know, I covered courts for a long time, so has Teri, but I don’t pretend to be a legal expert – but it is rather unusual for the civil suit to come before any word of criminal charges, whether they are or not going to pursue criminal charges in this case. That’s a bit of a wrinkle in the progress of this case that was unusual and a little bit of a curveball. Three people were named in that suit. We were told early on that five people were involved, so we don’t know who those other two people are. My point is that there are a lot of unanswered questions swirling around this entire event and we’re trying to get answers to as many of those questions as we possibly can.

Jeff Light: Yes, I’m sure we’re going to have opportunity to revisit this as the year unwinds. Thank you all for that conversation.

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