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Inside the newsroom: What the Kavanaugh hearings can teach journalists

Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in before testifying during the Senate Judiciary Committee, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in before testifying during the Senate Judiciary Committee, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Tom Williams, Pool Photo

SALT LAKE CITY — Two women confronted Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake at an elevator as he was headed to that key Senate hearing to push forward the nomination of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh to the full Senate for a vote.

Ana Maria Archila raised her voice and pleadingly told the Arizona senator: "On Monday I stood in front of your office. I told the story of my sexual assault."

Maria Gallagher was also there at the elevator. "I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me," she said. "I didn't tell anyone, and you're telling all women that they don't matter."

Later that afternoon in Salt Lake City, a confrontation occurred between a downtown protester and a man walking by the protest, criticizing their tactics. Jamie Carter sprang into action, saying the man didn't care about women who had been raped, including herself.

"There's so many women that have been through this. It has been a release to me," Carter told Deseret News reporter Lisa Riley Roche.

These are three women telling their stories. They've gone public thanks to another named woman, Christine Blasey Ford, who came before the Senate committee to tell her story about a high school sexual assault. She says Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was the teenager who attacked her.

News organizations, including the Deseret News, often include the following paragraph in stories of alleged sexual assault victims: "The Deseret News typically does not name the victims of sexual assault without their permission."

The hope is to protect victims from being revictimized. And the reaction to Blasey Ford, who first sought to give the Senate information anonymously, shows how people can be victimized when they are the center of the storm.

But the power of putting a name and a face behind an allegation can't be underestimated and can prompt change for the better. It's why journalists, and subsequently the public, are seeing more and more women and men willing to go on the record to tell their stories.

It provides weight to the #MeToo movement. Even those who were and remain in support of Judge Kavanaugh's nomination and feel like he's been wronged found Blasey Ford's testimony both powerful and heartbreaking.

The Senate is open to justifiable criticism for how last week's hearings played out. Blasey Ford's allegations were to be private, but they were leaked and many are using her story as a weapon. The Senate also remains divided on partisan lines and has declared as much, regardless of what's yet to come from an FBI investigation of Judge Kavanaugh and the allegations by Dr. Blasey Ford. You'll find that detailed in a Saturday commentary by my colleague Boyd Matheson.

There is plenty here from both political sides to be called disgraceful.

But take a step back and watch what is occurring in the country. Real people are telling their stories and putting their names behind those stories and experiences.

Jaime Aikele Caliendo filed a lawsuit Monday against current Utah State University associate professor of music Dennis Hirst.
Jaime Aikele Caliendo
Courtesy of Jaime Aikele Caliendo

Jaime Aikele Caliendo came forth to talk about alleged abuses and problems in the music program at Utah State University. She then filed a lawsuit seeking more change. The story by Deseret News reporters Erica Evans and Gillian Friedman includes the following sentence:

"The Deseret News usually does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault, but Caliendo, now 41, agreed to be identified and is named as the plaintiff in the lawsuit."

Earlier other women had also come forward to help bring change to the piano program at USU.

Whitney McPhie Griffith, who said she was raped by her piano instructor in 2009, and Amy Cannon Arakelyan, who said she was sexually harassed by faculty members, were among the first to come forward and prompt an investigation by the university. And since a report issued in April, the university has made key changes to help protect students.

But none of this is easy for those who come forward, facing questioning, doubt and exposure, and it gets muddied by those who use false allegations as weapons in domestic violence cases, or to cover other stories, as in this Deseret News story from July:

"A woman who said she was sexually assaulted by a man who claimed to be a door-to-door salesman Sunday made up the incident, according to police. ... Police said the woman confessed to making up the story."

Inside the newsroom we're taking stock of it all and try to be responsible in how we cover sensitive, life-altering stories. As the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics states:

"Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect." Minimizing harm means balancing "the public's need for information against potential harm or discomfort." It doesn't eliminate it, and poor journalism makes it worse. But it's one of several pillars we try to stand on.

The benefit of those going on the record was seen in the response to the national Sexual Assault hotline on Thursday, which surged by 201 percent as Blasey Ford told her story.

Prior to that, on Wednesday inside the newsroom, two women I greatly respect engaged in a conversation. The first said she had a problem with allegations centered around a high school encounter. "He has no way to defend himself," she said, referring to Kavanaugh. Her colleague strongly disagreed, saying Blasey Ford's story disqualifies the judge from joining the high court.

Back and forth the conversation went. It was civil. It was interesting. Then it became more revealing, as personal experiences were shared. That was the "ah-ha moment," when debate or conversation became understanding. Understanding then turns to compassion and from compassion solutions to one of society's great problems — sexual abuse — can be addressed.

The Deseret News wrote an editorial this week noting that the nation lost something on Thursday: "It lost the safety and security every victim should have to confidently bring forth allegations of abuse. It lost the certainty that the accused should have a fair and honest process."

And yet, all is not lost and humanity emerges in trying times. Whatever happens this week in the Kavanaugh hearings, if some victims of abuse are helped and if greater compassion can be found in homes and offices, it will prove that these voices have been heard.