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How to Report On Sexual Assault and Actually Report Well

When we think about rape and sexual assault and the necessary steps that need to be taken to help shift a culture of violence against women to a culture of consent, dignity and respect for all, media is often overlooked as a guilty party that helps maintain both patriarchal and misogynist cultural norms. In “Transforming Objective Journalism into Progressive Journalism” Tara Murtha, a Philadelphia Weekly reporter, rightfully argues that “In the history of reporting on rape, that view has all too often been the perspective of the perpetrator.” So, how can reporters help shift this perspective?

During my time as Coordinator of the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls & Young Women, I spent approximately a year researching rape and sexual violence reporting trends for the production of a media toolkit titled Reporting on Rape and Sexual Violence: A Media Toolkit for Local and National Journalists to Better Media Coverage.

On a spreadsheet, I compiled what those of us who do advocacy work would deem “bad” stories in one column, and “good” stories in another.

Bad stories are those where the reporter employs victim-blaming statements (from the New York Times: “She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some say"), witness testimonies that are one-sided (from ABC 20/20: “She had her arm wrapped around me and one hand on my chest. It just felt like she was coming on to me”), and superfluous details that shame the victim (from the New York Times: “They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s”). A bad story lacks accuracy, fairness, and objectivity.

On the other hand, a good story is written from an objective or trauma-informed angle. It’s the kind of story where a reporter opts for accurate language instead of opting for provocative words. Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams affirms this, writing “When the media uses the word 'sex' within a story about something where there are alleged victims of assault, it’s a semantic failure on an epic scale. It diminishes crime. It sensationalizes it. It removes the distinction between a normal, consensual act and violence. Sure, you could say that sex is an element of those stories. But you’d be missing the part about force and pathology.”  

A diligent reporter takes the time to contextualize the event and the use of statistics in order to provide just and factual information. He or she is the kind of reporter who writes with a sense of integrity and care for the lives of those who may be affected by the story.

Needless to say, in my research I found many examples of bad reporting, compared to just one example of good reporting.

For those of us involved in anti-violence work, Murtha’s words resonate deeply. We know that objective reporting is an illusion, a goal reporters strive towards but never fully achieve. Murtha affirms as much: “The so-called 'view from nowhere' used to justify the supposedly objective reporting is actually a view from somewhere so common its biases have been rendered invisible.” If biased reporting trends illustrate anything, it is the complexities of “objectivity” that reporters are supposed to abide by.

Now complete, our media toolkit, Reporting on Rape and Sexual Violenceserves as a resource that can help demystify some of those complexities for reporters.

The four points brought forth by those of us who collaborated on the media toolkit and that we want journalists to take away are the following:

1. Girls and young women experience multiple and intersecting forms of violence. We need to look at the complexities of the ways in which girls and young women experience abuse in order to adequately understand the context in which gender-based violence exists.

2. When single-event news stories present violence as an isolated event, it sends the message that violence is inherent only in those who commit the crimes and that it only affects the victims of those crimes. We know that violence is a public health concern that affects society at large and contextualizing it as such allows the general public to understand their own relation to cultural norms that say violence against women is OK.

3. Language is integral to our understanding of gender-based violence – words reflect subtle assumptions about responsibility, blame and agency as well as the very nature of the violence itself. The same can be said for how a news story is framed.

4. The use of data should specify how the information was measured and for what purpose. Otherwise, the use of data can mislead readers.

These points are not as comprehensive at those outlined in the toolkit; however, they provide insight into some of the overarching elements that reporters need to take into consideration.

While we must acknowledge that there are many journalists that care about the impact that their reporting will have on individuals, victims, survivors, perpetrators, siblings, parents, local and national communities, they are far and few between.

Perhaps this is due to the fact that changing the perspective with which journalists are taught to report means having to change the very institutions that have codified some of most salient ethical codes reporters abide by. It would mean having to return to Murtha’s contention,asking, "What is the history of reporting on rape, and how is this history of reporting intrinsically related to a history of violence against women?"

But we will save that discussion for another day.

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