Reporting on sexual violence: Why can’t we get it right?

Untitled-1Nobody want’s to talk about rape or sexual violence right after Christmas. Here the deal; we (as journalists and just human beings who care) need to talk about sexual violence. We need to start talking about it so that maybe next year we will finally start doing a better job covering it.

I’m going to start with some background. My junior/senior year of college was plagued by the question of how to properly cover tragedy. I paid attention to a lot of case studies (the Sandy Hook shooting and Boston Marathon bombing, notably) and focused some areas of academic research in the area. As a leader in my school’s student newspaper, I faced two major tragedies, the first of which our staff was vastly unprepared for, which also played into my interest in the subject. It was a complex subject, but the basic conclusion I came to was that you have to help as much as you can (by disseminating relevant and accurate news in a timely manner and not stirring up unnecessary controversy or fear) while trying not to harm anyone, especially victims.

The big stories at the end of this year involved sexual violence, rather than the other kinds of violence I had been considering in my studies. In covering sexual violence, some of the same issues apply, which there are some other, very unique issues that come up. With high publicity cases like the Rolling Stone debacle and fictional TV accounts like the controversial one in The Newsroom’s final season, the ethics of covering rape have been front and center, and it’s clear we, as journalists, don’t quite have it down.

I think one of the main issues at play is that the nature of journalists/ interviews vs. the struggles of living in a world fully entrenched in rape culture. Journalists naturally want to question everything and tease out the truth. They shouldn’t typically trust one source. They should embrace a general demeanor or skepticism. With rape, though, any skepticism is tied to the culture that notoriously blames and re-victimizes victims.Though many issues with the Rolling Stones story were a result of shoddy/lazy reporting, I think this issue also played a part.

It’s never going to be easy to cover something like rape (which is tragic and violent and still, somehow, taboo for victims), but resources are out there. It’s clear any practicing journalist should be prepared to handle this coverage and avoid totally bungling the situation. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma is where I’m starting my education. How about you?

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