'The Hunting Ground' - Is The Documentary Too Agenda-Driven?

As many readers of blogs here on my site are aware, I’m a journalism major at an arts college in Chicago. This is particularly helpful not only in regard to preparation for my future, but in my execution of my work here on this website and via freelance. One of my more compelling classes is one I am currently enrolled in - a study of both the legal and ethical aspects of the field. Oddly enough, the two often contradict, making for some intriguing fodder and conversation. For that very class this last week, I dug into ‘The Hunting Ground,’ a recent documentary on campus harassment. Beyond an assignment, I discovered some rather fascinating information. Thus, the crux of this piece is whether or not ‘The Hunting Ground’ is an ethically sound, journalistic endeavor or a propaganda piece.

When watching ‘The Hunting Ground,’ you’re continually heartbroken. The documentary hones in on rape on college campuses, exposing the myriad of incidents every year across countless universities that are pushed under the rug. The film becomes increasingly more frustrating as you quickly learn two things: that most rapists win, and that the game is set up to intentionally make that happen. The long and the short of it: universities want low statistics. We never have rapes on campus... Right? How about that tuition money?

This struck a chord with me. As readers of the Spotlight also know, I’ve been in a school shooting. In the last two years, I’ve been a loud and firm advocate of school transparency. I’ve made the argument, and sometimes a rather unpopular assessment, that my school was largely at fault for the shooting that occurred. A strong desire to ignore problematic situations and potentially reputation-harming realities created immeasurable negligence. That’s the exact same argument ‘The Hunting Ground’ makes for schools like Notre Dame and sexual assault.

Now, the piece is especially convincing because it isn’t a bunch of meaningless talking heads. No, you’re confronted by an endless, heart-wrenching barrage of tattered and destroyed young women. Many of those young women, two of them above all, had to step up to create justice because the authorities, universities, and communities wouldn’t do so. That’s outraging to me. Very, very outraging. Does ‘The Hunting Ground’ go too far to ensure that response?

A leaked email circulated the last week shows some potentially hazardous territory. The message, sent to Erica Kinsman’s lawyer, assured the following... (Kinsman is the young woman who alleges rape against NFL Draft pick, Jameis Winston.)

“We don’t operate the same way as journalists - this is a film project very much in the corner of advocacy for victims, so there would be no insensitive questions or the need to get the perpetrator’s side.”

Okay, so this raises a few problems. One, Rolling Stone proved this year that you need to get the perpetrator's side. As the aforementioned ethics class would tell you, it’s incredibly unethical not to do so. Your job as a journalist is to be fair and rounded; you don’t create victims or culprits. Two, the email blatantly argues that it the film isn’t a journalistic pursuit. That creates a discrepancy between the content and the film’s credibility.

Now, ‘The Hunting Ground’ isn’t wrong. This is a problem and it’s rampant nearly everywhere. When I called up a buddy who goes to CU Boulder, one of the accused schools, he was well aware of the school’s active effort to shy away from the truth on their campus. As the film mentions, schools like CU often impose fines in the ballpark of $75 for such accusations. ‘The Daily Show’ once did a segment about these schools expelling students post-graduation. Clearly, there is a massive scandal at play and none of these 'punishments' are effective or preventative.

At the end of the day, ‘The Hunting Ground’ does what it needs to. It gets the foot stuck in the door - just like Spike Lee with the south side of Chicago and just like Michael Moore with gun violence. Both of those two have a tendency to take it too far, and did in both those cases. Their aims, while admirable, definitely intensified to create quality ‘entertainment.’ They did, however, create a conversation in a bombastic way.

‘The Hunting Ground’ is worth seeing. In fact, you owe it to yourself to see it. As the leaked email indicates, it may be a film with a massive agenda and it’s trying to rile you up like it did me. Let it, because it creates that conversation. Sometimes, you have to have a drastic agenda to at least do that. ‘Bowling for Columbine’ wouldn’t have gotten the bullets out of K-Mart without a bit of flair. Do take the film cautiously, though, because it is hypocritical in nature. It calls for the transparency of schools but fails to create a transparent account of its own accusations.