Investigative Reporting Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint: How Columbia Journalism Grads Investigated the Perils of Online Dating | Columbia Journalism School
Preview of Tinder Story on website

Investigative Reporting Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint: How Columbia Journalism Grads Investigated the Perils of Online Dating

Match Group, which owns most major online-dating services, screens for sexual predators on Match, its flagship dating site — but not on OkCupid, Tinder or PlentyofFish. The company has lobbied against laws to protect users while deflecting lawsuits using a statute meant to protect users' speech.

In partnership with ProPublica, Columbia Journalism Investigations—a team of investigative journalists including faculty and postgraduate fellows—analyzed more than 150 incidents of sexual assault involving dating apps, culled from a decade of news reports, civil lawsuits and criminal records.

Here, postgraduate fellows Keith Cousins, '18 M.A. Politics, Elizabeth Naismith Picciani, '19 M.S., and Hillary Flynn, '18 M.S., talk about their deeply investigated story "Tinder Lets Known Sex Offenders Use The App. It's Not the Only One."


1 - When did you know that there was a major problem with women experiencing sexual assault on Match Group’s dating apps?


There’s an inherent risk to sexual predators prowling devices meant to connect millions of users seeking romantic relationships. Match Group is the industry leader, owning the most popular dating apps. But in order to verify and quantify this problem rather than utilize anecdotes, we first saw that there were a few lawsuits against Match Group from women whose attacker was a known sexual predator. Then, we did a news “scrape” of articles nationwide involving sexual assault or rape and online dating, confirming most with police reports and court docs. From these 157 cases, we noticed that the majority were on a Match Group app. We worked with experts including Columbia University statisticians and public health professors to create an exploratory questionnaire of 1300 women who used dating apps. About 30% said they were sexually assaulted or raped by someone they met on a dating app or site. From these areas, we began to see that Match Group’s safety practices were worth examining further. 


2 - How long did the story take to report and how did you divide the work as a group?


The core of the reporting took place over 16 months. Throughout the process, our team of CJI fellows worked closely with our editor, Kristen Lombardi, to split up the workload. We collaborated as a team and had crossover throughout, but each of us tended to have targeted reporting responsibilities. For example, Keith took the lead on the regulatory landscape and Hillary found lawsuits and developed the questionnaire. Elizabeth helped with the database and legal experts. We all worked on different aspects of victim outreach, narrative, and requesting interviews with current and former Match Group employees.

3 - What were the biggest challenges you encountered while conducting this investigation and how did you overcome them?


One of the largest challenges associated with the investigation is that this is an extremely underreported issue. There is no government agency collecting data on the scale of online dating sexual violence and, to our knowledge, no one has attempted to examine it at the national level. This meant we had to document the issue in unique ways, such as our database of more than 150 cases and a questionnaire conducted using Amazon’s MTurk platform. 


For our main narrative case, sex crime laws in Massachusetts made it difficult to obtain documentation for police reports and sex offender information. However, with due diligence we were able to obtain all the necessary records and information we required.


It was also difficult to find victims of sexual assault to speak with from dating apps since names are redacted from police reports, news reports, and court documents. We were able to find them through various resources such as social media, law enforcement agreeing to pass on letters to victims, etc. We are extremely grateful to their bravery in sharing.


Lastly, it was difficult to obtain information from Match Group. They asked us to stop contacting current employees and refused interview requests with executives. Ultimately, we spoke with some members of their communications team and some of their former employees.


4 - In the story, you say Match Group doesn’t release their own data on the number of sexual assaults reported on the apps. How will the team continue reporting on the issue in the absence of not having the user data?


We are excited to continue digging into this industry’s handling of sexual assault cases through crowdsourcing. We’re asking readers to fill out our confidential questionnaire, available on ProPublica’s website here:, if they have experienced sexual assault on a dating app, worked at a dating app company, or with the topic in law enforcement. Thus, although Match Group doesn’t release their own data, we are hoping to cultivate our own through readers’ responses to our questionnaire.



5 - If you could share one big lesson that you learned during this process about being an investigative reporter, what would it be?

Keith: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” was my mantra throughout this process because it was really ingrained in me that, just like a marathon runner, getting to the finish line with an investigative piece involves juggling short term goals and benchmarks while always keeping in mind what is needed to finish strong. 

Elizabeth: A lot of the characteristics needed to cultivate sources (and consequently information) merely mirror those virtues of our human relationships--honesty, listening, patience, kindness, understanding, etc. Furthermore, working on an investigative team is like being on a sports team: The coach is your editor and the athletes might bring different skill sets, but you have to work together for the best story. On a practical level, I learned the value of diligent organization--especially on a long term project--where scrupulous notes will pay off months and months later.

Hillary: What really struck me during this investigation is how much reporters can use social science skills. Before starting this investigation assignments like creating a national survey or even interviewing dozens of trauma survivors would have intimidated me. However, one of the best parts of being a fellow at Columbia University's Journalism School is the access you have to other departments and professors there who are willing to help you out. With guidance from the Statistics and Public Health departments my team was able to mine the first ever data on online dating sexual assault in the United States, and with consultations from  journalism industry experts who came to speak to us during the Brown Bag Lunches my editor Kristen Lombardi started we were able to report on sexual violence in an ethical way.
The Beat is an interview series with the School's postgraduate fellows that educates the public on how deeply reported investigations are made. 
 *Sociomedical Sciences Department and Statistics Department