minority reports

The right way to write about rape

A panel offers tips for navigating the charged terrain of reporting on sexual assault and domestic violence
July 18, 2013

When Claudia Garcia-Rojas, an activist and advocate from Chicago, began assembling her toolkit for journalists covering sexual assault, she surveyed hundreds of articles searching for positive examples. She found two. “And they weren’t even stories about rape, they were stories about covering rape,” says Garcia-Rojas.

Here’s what she found in the rest: leading language, scant statistics, and a whole lot of victim blaming. “What often happens in these stories is that the victims are considered guilty, and the rapists are considered innocent,” she told the handful of women (and only women) who gathered at the offices of Women’s eNews last week for a seminar on navigating the tricky ethics of covering sexual assault and domestic violence.

A recent slew of media flubs (including coverage of sexual assaults in Steubenville, OH) have brought prominence to examples of poor reporting. According to Garcia-Rojas, articles with leading language and shaky statistics are not just badly written; they propagate rape culture and make it difficult for survivors to recount their assault. Doing better requires consideration of the survivor, even before a reporter starts writing:· Make sure your story won’t compromise the safety of the survivor. Also consider the perpetrator, especially if he or she hasn’t been convicted.

· Be honest that you are a journalist, and be honest about the angle of your article. “You can’t approach a victim and say, ‘I’m interested in your story,'” and then write a sensationalizing headline that mischaracterizes what they tell you, says Garcia-Rojas. “You need to establish rapport.”

· Don’t share your personal stories during the interview–it’s a story about the survivor, not the journalist and, no, you can’t relate. Also, don’t ask too many incendiary “why” questions. “‘Why did you go to the store with that man? Why do you think you were raped?’ This implies victim blaming,” says Garcia-Rojas.

· Recognize that victims of trauma tell their stories in fragments and not chronologically. “It’s not good to say: ‘Oh, but you just said it happened this way,'” she said.

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Once you begin writing, using appropriate language requires careful consideration. Commonly used verbs such as “alleged,” “admits,” and “confesses” insert shame and uncertainty into quotes; instead, Garcia-Rojas recommends a simple “said.” Similarly, phrases like “fondle,” “engaged in,” and even “oral sex,” are words used during consensual sex and should not be used to describe rape. Instead, Garcia-Rojas recommends a blunt description of actions, such as, “He forced his penis into her mouth.”

“If we read that we’re like, ‘Wow, this is what happened to this person,'” she says. (You can read through the full list of recommendations in the Chicago Taskforce’s Media Guidelines.)

Rita Henley Jensen, editor in chief of Women’s eNews, urged journalists to use statistics to tell a larger story–especially for common and garish narratives such as the eponymous: “Man shoots wife, kills self.” Though statistically, women who separate from men are at their highest point of risk for violence, articles typically portray the shooters as an abnormality.

“Like: Oh, he was such a regular guy! Nothing troubled in the marriage! Would you believe that?” says Henley Jensen. “But everything that living on this planet teaches you says that there’s a different story: Some people are very nice to their neighbors and not so nice to their wives.” A simple restructuring–including the statistic and moving a comment about a past threat closer to the top–gives a more accurate picture of the origins of the event. (Read Henley Jensen’s full rewrite here.
) “I mean, the woman’s dead, and you didn’t see trouble in the marriage,” she said.

Journalists should be especially on guard for troubling ideas that come from sources. “What do you do when everyone is victim blaming?” asked one reporter in the audience. “When you have 50 people in a town and they’re all saying, ‘She was a slut.’ How can you not include that?” According to Garcia-Rojas, reporters should be constantly questioning when to include a quote and when to dismiss it–or, even better, include the quote alongside an explanation of the troubling culture it underlies.

“These people are talking from within a culture of rape and violence that is sadly prevalent in our society,” says Garcia-Rojas. “It’s our job to know better and to start telling a different kind of story.”

Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis.