Journalistic Norms Dishonor Sexual Assault Survivors

Photo credit: FilippoBacci/Getty Images

Statistics for rape and sexual assault are, to put it mildly, quite jarring. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), every 73 seconds a person in the United States is sexually assaulted—but only 230 out of every 1,000 perpetrators will be reported. Of those 230 reported cases, just five perpetrators will face consequences within the current judiciary system. These numbers are damning, but what’s worse is that throughout the judiciary process, survivors are asked to relive their trauma, while being questioned and challenged at every turn by police officers, attorneys, and judges. Survivors are blamed for their assault, and depending on the outcome of their case, they might, at some point, regret coming forward at all. This is especially true for survivors who share their stories with journalists, because a journalist’s hands are frequently tied by the same unjust systems.

When a survivor reaches out to a journalist, they’re trusting them with intimate details of their trauma. However, before their story can be shared, the survivor must first make the case for why their story is newsworthy. Often, they’re asked to provide “proof,” in the form of screenshots, audio or video recordings, or photos. The journalist must interview these additional sources, if possible, and share the survivor’s story with their editor(s), as well as legal advisors. Journalists and editors also have to fact-check claims made by sources, which in this case means investigating without prematurely “outing” a survivor for coming forward. It’s incredibly tricky, and there are blockades at seemingly every turn. Journalistic practices regarding rape cases were called into question in 2014, when Vox writer Libby Nelson penned an essay that criticized the way Rolling Stone handled its coverage of a gang rape at the University of Virginia.

“If a journalist were completely honest with a source about what it means to be interviewed for this sort of story, it would go something like this: you are going to tell me about the worst day of your life, because you think there is value in sharing that story with the rest of the world,” Nelson wrote. “You need to trust me, but you need to know I am not your friend. I will seem as sympathetic as I can be, but I will also note the exact moment you start crying so I can write about it. I will ask questions that might make you uncomfortable. I will call other people and tell them what you’re saying about them. I will open you up to the judgment of the entire world. And then I will walk away. And if you aren’t ready to deal with that, you shouldn’t talk to me.” Nelson’s words frame reporters as exploitative and uncaring—but they also, unfortunately, point out several truths regarding the current structure of journalism.

In high-profile cases—Steubenville, Brock Turner, Harvey Weinstein, R. Kelly, Bill Cosby—survivors are forced to watch their trauma play out on a national stage, whereupon their attackers are condemned by some of the population but staunchly defended by the rest. All the while, people demand to know why the survivor or survivors didn’t come forward sooner, why the media was silent, or why one survivor’s story led to an influx of others. They even demand to know how a predator was able to harm so many people across so many years. When journalists attempt to cover these cases in a way that’s survivor-led and trauma-informed, they’re often shut down—often because of the mere possibility of legal threats. Being even remotely sympathetic to a survivor can be seen as a threat to the story’s legitimacy, at both an editorial and a legal level.

NBC News killed Ronan Farrow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting about the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, forcing him to take the story to the New Yorker. Similarly, MSNBC anchor Joy Reid was told to take her story to another outlet after one of survivor, author, and domestic-violence activist Sil Lai Abrams’s alleged attackers, Russell Simmons, threatened to sue the network. Both reports concerned accusations of rape and sexual assault, which are punishable under federal law, and yet a major news outlet with tons of resources refused to run them. “Sexual misconduct” is a nebulous term that journalists and editors frequently employ to avoid any potential legal ramifications for reporting on claims made against an alleged attacker. “Sexual misconduct is a lay term, sometimes used in institutional policies or by professional bodies,” Elaine Craig, a law professor at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law in Halifax, Nova Scotia, told the Ottawa Citizen in 2018. “It covers an array of problematic sexual behavior including sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexual abuse.

Two of these terms have specific (and different) legal meanings: Sexual assault has a specific meaning in the criminal law context, unlike sexual misconduct, which may cover both criminal and noncriminal conduct.” “Alleged” is another word that frequently appears in stories about rape, sexual assault, and sexual misconduct, most often to establish objectivity. By trade, journalists are meant to be bipartisan and unbiased, to fairly cover every angle of a story, and to seek comment from sources from every side of an issue. Our job is to present information to the public so that they can make an informed decision without being swayed by our reporting—which often means that newsrooms put policies into place that disallow journalists from covering issues that could be considered “conflicts of interest” based on their identities. This terminology is meant to protect reporters from being named in lawsuits for defamation or libel if an attacker takes issue with their crimes being written about.

Using “alleged” also mitigates any responsibility that may lay on the shoulders of reporters or editors for shedding light on an attacker’s actions. Meanwhile, if the information journalists receive from survivors is about actions that don’t fall under the umbrella of “punishable” offenses, it’s unlikely they’ll be allowed to report on them at all. When journalists are approached about bad actors—adults who groom “above the age of consent” teenagers but never touch them, or gaslighters and manipulators who wield influence for favors—this process gets even more difficult. Throughout the course of my career, I’ve reported on accused rapists, alleged molesters, and a number of bad actors. Although my intentions have always been good, I’ve made terrible mistakes. I’ve framed attackers as sympathetic because my editor wouldn’t allow me to run a piece without a full statement from the accused. I’ve told survivors I can’t name their abuser and report their story because, while I believed them, “this behavior, unfortunately, isn’t illegal.” Editors have asked me whether I want to be an activist or a journalist (because in order to be “objective,” I can’t be both).

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When an editor told me not to pursue a story after a survivor emailed me to name their groomer—namely because at the time the outlet was facing potential legal action for another piece regarding a bad actor—I attempted to take the story to another outlet with a more feminist bent. That editor told me they couldn’t run the piece either, because it would leave the publication vulnerable to legal recourse. Months later, the survivor came forward on social media and a conversation ensued about how journalists had failed them and other survivors of sexual misconduct. I was one of those journalists—and I’m sorry. “I don’t think structural limitations of journalism are the problem in and of themselves; the larger barriers [are] the dogmas and unacknowledged biases surrounding their selective execution and the ways that structural power informs what editors interpret as biases,” Jay Edidin, a writer, podcaster, and editor who cowrote a 2017 piece for BuzzFeed News that identified longtime DC Comics editor Eddie Berganza as an alleged serial attacker, told Bitch. “Given the power dynamics that go into the kinds of abuses we’re discussing here, that disconnect is a huge barrier to fair coverage.”

As a freelancer, Edidin faced significant barriers when attempting to research and report the Berganza story, including a lack of traditional editorial or publication support. He also struggled to place the piece. “When I first started investigating it, the platforms with sufficient infrastructure and oversight thought it was too low profile, and the ones that were interested either didn’t have the structure to support it or were concerned that running it would mean being blacklisted by Time Warner [at the time the parent company of DC Comics],” he said. “#MeToo changed that—and a lot of the dynamics of reporting on sexual misconduct. Suddenly, major outlets were willing to dedicate resources and space to stories that they’d thought of as irrelevant.” Edidin said his history as a survivor benefits his reporting rather than hinders it. “It’s something that lets me connect more directly to sources, stay more aware of their concerns and vulnerability, and ask questions that someone more ‘objective’ wouldn’t think to,” he said. “Every reporter has biases they bring with them, and every article, however dry it may sound, has intent behind it. It’s a matter of acknowledging that and working past it or harnessing it responsibly.”

Investigating sexual misconduct takes time, resources, and careful consideration of survivors’ privacy. If the accused hears about the investigation, there’s a very real possibility the reporter will be stonewalled or threatened and forced to drop the story altogether. An even heavier onus of responsibility rests on the shoulders of survivors. The fact is, sexual misconduct goes well beyond activity that is punishable by law—but it’s damn near impossible for journalists to report on any of these behaviors unless a survivor makes a statement publicly; otherwise, there’s too much risk of being sued. If a survivor makes a statement, we can report what was said, which once again puts all responsibility on them. If survivors choose to come forward publicly, they create space for their story to be shared widely; unfortunately, they also paint a target on their back.

Being even remotely sympathetic to a survivor can be seen as a threat to the story’s legitimacy, at both an editorial and a legal level. 

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Each time a new bad actor is named publicly, the validity and purpose of whisper networks is called into question. When Moira Donegan started the “Shitty Media Men” list in 2017, it quickly went viral and listed stories ranging from sexual assault to workplace intimidation and casual use of slurs as it was shared and updated, anonymously, by women in media. Several men named on the list took issue with its framing; writer Stephen Elliott even filed a defamation suit against Donegan, which will move forward following a court ruling in July. As whisper networks are called into question, so are journalists. In addition to being accused of leading witch hunts or perpetuating false information for merely reporting on public statements, journalists are also accused of not doing enough, not caring, and not believing survivors and of protecting attackers, abusers, and bad actors.

Given the state of journalism and public discourse, it’s a struggle for journalists to be given the space, structure, and legal resources to report these stories in a way that’s survivor-led and trauma-informed. However, Edidin notes, there are ways forward. “We need to shift the focus from exposing individual bad actors to challenging the structures that support them and punish their victims and [to] the people who perpetuate those [structures],” he said. “We need companies that take abuse seriously and cultivate cultures where it’s not tolerated. We need HR departments that aren’t shackled by C-suites full of good old boys. We need entry-level employees with access to and understanding of their rights and support in demanding them.” Ultimately, journalists need to be given the tools to report on sexual misconduct in a trauma-informed way that won’t cause additional harm.

This means stepping away from “objectivity,” which is virtually impossible, and reframing reports to be more focused on promoting healing and positive transformation, with the aim of changing the culture and avoiding the black hole of “one bad apple” rhetoric. It also means recognizing that when survivors come to journalists, they’re asking for help—help the judiciary system won’t offer and help they may not be able to access elsewhere. Journalists need to be given the space to report in a fair, accurate way but also to give precedence to the safety and security of survivors—both the ones they know and the ones who may be too afraid to come forward. These are important steps, and eradicating rape culture as it exists today will require a systemic and social overhaul that digs the problem up at its roots and exposes it to the light.

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by Samantha Puc
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Samantha Puc is a culture critic and essayist whose work focuses on LGBTQ and fat representation in pop culture. She is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Fatventure Mag.