By now, everyone’s heard about the UCD200 story published by the College Tribune last week. The article alleged that there was an online “revenge porn ring” in existence in a Facebook group chat predominantly made up of Agricultural Science students. The allegations have since been declared by UCD to be “based on hearsay” and an investigation found “no evidence” of the group’s existence.
There are any number of editorials and column inches to be written on the UCD200, from the questionably hasty investigation undertaken by UCD, to the unforgivably slow response of the Students’ Union to allegations made at the end of December. But perhaps the most striking aspect of the story was the damage that can be done by poor (or in this case, non-existent) journalistic standards of college newspapers and national broadsheets alike, which resulted in national uproar and have damaged very real cases of sexual harassment and violence where there is, in fact, substantiated evidence to prove they happened.
The UCD200 story has grabbed headlines in media outlets from The Irish Times to Joe.ie, and although the College Tribune can be criticised for their own lack of ethical journalism, it was perhaps even more shocking to see the number of large media outlets that took on a completely unsubstantiated story. The BBC, normally a reliable news outlet, reported the story as being completely true, as well as writing that UCD Vice President Mark Rogers was the UCD President, which even a rudimentary Google search would have quickly corrected. Numerous Twitter and Facebook users have been quick to accuse the College Tribune of poor ethical standards, but there are also questions to be asked of our professional journalists who sacrificed ethical reporting for a shock-inducing headline.
The National Union of Journalists has a professional code of conduct for their members, the second point of which reads “Strive[s] to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair.” The fourth point reads “Differentiate[s] between fact and opinion”. In many reports relating to the UCD200, neither of these guidelines were observed.
It is important to note, and Professor Rogers did note in his email to students, that there is little doubt that groups like the UCD200 do exist, in UCD and elsewhere. Sexual harassment and the sharing of private images occurs regularly. Less than a month ago reports surfaced that a number of images of teenage girls as young as 14, most of whom were from Cork, were copied from their social media profiles and posted to a pornographic website. Some of the images were reported by the Irish Examiner to have been Photoshopped into explicit situations. And yet, this substantiated and horrific account of sexual harassment was not reported on extensively. Celebrities such as Louise O’Neill did not speak out against it. Twitter did not explode with criticisms. But cases like this, with first-hand information and verifiable proof, are the ones we really need to be talking about.
The response to the results of UCD’s investigation have shown the damage that irresponsible journalism has done to victims of sexual harassment and the sharing of explicit images. Both men and women have been culprits in saying that groups of people such as those accused of being involved in the UCD200 have been vindicated, that Facebook groups like the one described could not exist, and even that the entire story was a “witch hunt” (according to one Twitter user) against men. The damage that seeing quotes like these could have on someone who has been sexually assaulted and may be frightened to come forward cannot be measured, and would certainly not serve to encourage them to speak out. This is a direct result of the extensive, unverified coverage the story received.
Although the story ought not to have been reported on without evidence, the accusations levelled of the existence of such a group chat could easily have been true, and the potential existence of similar groups cannot be negated. UCD200 has launched a national conversation about sexual consent. But there are dangers associated with starting a conversation based on misinformation, and we’re lucky that the conversation hasn’t been thrown out altogether as a result of the events this week. We need to talk about cases such as those of the young women in Cork in order to have any kind of a valid discussion on sexual consent; cases where it cannot be argued that the allegations were unfounded. It can only be hoped that the coverage of the alleged “revenge porn ring” doesn’t make the divide between those in support of the supposed UCD200 and those who rightly vilified them even greater.