UPDATED: March 28, 2015, at 5:55 p.m.
“The Hunting Ground,” a documentary that scrutinizes how sexual assault is handled on college campuses and heavily features Harvard, misrepresents statistics on instances of reported sexual assault at Harvard, calling the rigor of the film’s fact-checking process into question.
The film, which opened in Boston on March 13, chronicles what it describes as the “epidemic” of sexual assault at schools including Harvard. Opening with a sequence of video clips showing prospective students gleefully learning of their college acceptances, the film presents a stark contrast between the excitement students feel when they enter college and what it depicts as the dangerous climate that awaits them there.
The film focuses heavily on the testimony of victims of sexual assault and what they say was a lackluster response from administrators at their respective schools. A former Harvard Law School student describes her experience reporting an assault, and former Harvard associate professor Kimberly Theidon—who is currently suing the University for allegedly denying her tenure in response to her advocacy on behalf of sexual assault victims—is also interviewed. “The Hunting Ground” is largely critical of Harvard, which was one of the main schools chronicled in the film.
The project aimed to draw attention to the issue and create “activity for change,” according to Kirby Dick, the film’s writer and director whose previous work has been nominated for an Academy Award. Since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the film has drawn national attention and received a number of favorable reviews. A New York Times review called the film a “must-watch work of cine-activism, one that should be seen by anyone headed to college and by those already on campus.” The Boston Globe gave it three and a half stars.
The film, however, presents at least some information about Harvard inaccurately.
In one sequence, a series of slides lists various schools and the number of sexual assaults reported there in a given time period compared to the number that led to expulsion. The film lists that from 2009-2013, Harvard College saw 135 cases of reported sexual assault, but only 10 expulsions.
Those numbers are misleading. According to Dick, filmmakers arrived at the 135 number through criminal statistics made public by Harvard as required by the Clery Act, but, contrary to what the film states, those numbers do not necessarily represent only incidents at Harvard College. The Clery Act statistics available specify on which campus at Harvard various crimes occurred, and whether they happened in a campus, residential, off-campus, or public setting, but they do not break down offenses by individual school.
Harvard College has roughly 6,400 students, while Harvard University as a whole includes about 20,000.
According to Dick, filmmakers based its report that Harvard College saw 10 expulsions for sexual assault in this time period on case statistics published on the website of the College’s Administrative Board, which hands down sanctions in sexual assault cases. According to five-year statistics that are currently available online, the Ad Board required 10 students to withdraw from the College between the fall of 2009 and the spring of 2014 in disciplinary cases under the general category of “social behavior - sexual.”
Those students, however, were not necessarily expelled, but rather required to leave the College temporarily with the possibility of readmittance. In fact, the Ad Board cannot expel students. Only a vote of the Faculty Council can, and it happens rarely.
Furthermore, cases listed under the broad “social behavior - sexual” category are not necessarily sexual assault cases; the case statistics are not so specific.
Dick, for his part, acknowledged the numbers’ lack of specificity in an email. "Since Harvard College is not transparent about its number of sexual assaults or their adjudications, these are the available numbers that Harvard reports that convey the extreme gap between the number of assaults and number of severe sanctions," Dick wrote.
The statistics are not the only misleading part of the film. The sequence with students’ reactions to their college acceptances includes at least one short clip that is fake, taken from a prank video posted to YouTube last year purporting to feature a student vomiting after learning of her Harvard acceptance.
The student in the film, Nicole C. Hirschhorn ’16, was a sophomore at Harvard when she acted out the scene for campus comedy group On Harvard Time. After viewing that segment of the film, she confirmed that the clip in “The Hunting Ground” is from the prank video. She called the video “definitely fake.”
The short clip is included in the film with no indication that it is not authentic. Darren DeLuca, a publicist representing Dick, did not respond to a request for comment on the film’s fact-checking process or the YouTube video.
But when asked whether the film was meant to be a “truthful, journalistic documentary take on the issue,” Dick said, “Yes, absolutely.”
Media experts interviewed said films billed as documentaries must pass a high bar for accuracy. Speaking generally about documentaries but not specifically about “The Hunting Ground,” Alex S. Jones, the director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard, said if a film “call[s] itself a documentary, it has to be the truth—otherwise it's advocacy or propaganda; it's not a documentary.”
“I would hold them to exactly the same standard as I would an article in The New York Times,” said Jones, who previously worked for the Times as a journalist.
Former Dean of Columbia Journalism School Nicholas Lemann '76, for his part, suggested that factual inaccuracies undercut the credibility of a documentary film. “Just on moral grounds and on practical grounds, you're trying to build trust,” said Lemann, a former Crimson president. “Once you get something wrong, it’s very hard to stand your ground and say, ‘But everything else is right.’”
Still, others suggest that the film accurately portrays the experiences of students on college campuses. Colby Bruno, the senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center who appears in the film, said the film accurately portrays what she has found in her own work with survivors of sexual assault. Filmmakers contacted her about the project almost two years ago, she said, and spoke with her for at least eight hours.
“I think that they did a great job representing victims and representing the typical response from a college,” Bruno said, adding that she has seen an outpouring of support since the film’s release.
“The impact that it’s having on people is that they want to act after they see this movie, and that, I think, is going to be the film’s legacy,” Bruno said.
Still, the film has also drawn criticism from at least one university official, Florida State University President John Thrasher, who said his school was not given an adequate amount of time to respond. Dick said he believes that filmmakers reached out to University President Drew G. Faust “at least a couple of months before we finally locked picture.”
University spokesperson Jeff Neal wrote in an email that the President’s Office received a generic interview request in late November 2014. Faust declined to comment, and filmmakers were informed of that decision on Dec. 15, according to Neal. The film screened at Sundance in January.
Harvard College is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for allegedly violating anti-sex discrimination law Title IX. Harvard Law School entered a resolution agreement with the government after it was found in violation of the law in December.
—Staff writer Ivan B.K. Levingston can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @IvanLevingston.