Then, for nearly five minutes, Quist-Arcton, and her audience, sit with the same women. This generous amount of time has value; it gives these women presence. That, in turn, transforms the graphic details of their suffering, from “color” dropped in to bait the listener into telling detail. The time we spend with these women makes us witnesses to, rather than voyeurs of, their suffering.
Finally, she lets the survivors’ stories set the structure. Instead of plugging survivors’ quotes to support news points, Quist-Arcton arranges her sound bites so that her explanatory narration—of which there is remarkably little—builds on what the women have already said, allowing them to introduce the news, rather than the other way around.
But this can be even simpler. In a 2004 article, Marc Lacey, of The New York Times, makes partners of his readers in a single sentence. In a report he filed from Congo, he tells the stories of two pseudonymous underage girls. “Helen and Solange said in recent interviews that they had not told their stories even to their parents, never mind to United Nations officials. Rape carries a heavy stigma here, both girls made clear. They told their stories when approached by a reporter.”
Of course, if readers stopped to think about it, they would probably assume that all such stories are told to an approaching reporter. But that single line acknowledges to the reader, “I recognize my role in this story.” Signaling that level of awareness helps ease reader concerns about consent, anonymity, and other ethical questions. But it also does something else ethical journalism must do. In an e-mail message, Lacey explained, “This piece was carefully written to not identify these girls but I also felt as though I owed it to readers to give a sense of why these girls’ allegations should or should not be believed. So I included as many details to help readers come to their own view.”
In a series of reports, also from Congo, that won the Dart Award for Excellence in the Coverage of Trauma, radio reporter Jeb Sharp, of PRI’s The World, gives listeners an ethical clue in just two sentences. “It doesn’t feel right to interview young girls about rape. But the hospital staff want me to understand what’s been happening here. I speak with a tiny ten year old in blue jeans named Marie,” Sharp says. She lets us behind the scenes, which resolves one level of listeners’ ethical squeamishness—“How could she go talk to those ten year olds!”—so that listeners and reporter can share another ethical objection, precisely that objection which our reporting should raise—“How can this be?”
Many of the examples I’ve cited have focused on rape and have come from Africa, reflecting the focus of my own work, and critics have long argued, rightly or not, that American journalists apply looser standards when reporting on Africans than on Americans. But the risks these stories illustrate are inherent in all rape reporting. As the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Joanna Connors observed in her first-person narrative of surviving rape, “We Americans have such an awkward, complicated response to sex. We’re obsessed with it, ashamed of it, thrilled by it and deeply frightened by it.” She thinks this means that “we don’t want to talk about it.” But it can also mean we are tempted toward the salacious. In rape, as in other trauma stories, details can seem lurid. A clumsily placed attribution can suggest doubt about a survivor’s believability. A sound bite from a survivor who disappears from the story as soon as she’s been quoted can seem exploitative. This all depends on how the reader experiences what we write. We cannot control that experience, but we can, powerfully, guide it. We can enhance our professional credibility and improve our craft if we let this question, once posed by Serbian newspaper editor Milorad Ivanovic, guide our writing: “When”—and, I add, how—“do you put blood in the face of the reader?”