Thursday, December 18, 2014

Website counsels journalists how to cover sexual assault cases -- and to believe the "victim"

The Rolling Stone debacle ripped off an ugly scab on the biased reporting of sexual assault accusations by American news outlets. The pus it revealed is anathema to serious journalism. Most conscientious editors will not want to repeat the public relations disaster Rolling Stone has experienced, and now, for the first time in recent memory, people who write about sexual assault accusations might feel an obligation to be accountable and even-handed in their reporting.

How widespread is biased reporting on sexual assault? Regular readers of this blog know that it is is a serious problem.

Here is a website that might just be the playbook used by Sabrina Rubin Erdely when "reporting" on the alleged gang rape of "Jackie" at a University of Virginia frat house in Rolling Stone Magazine -- it's called "Know Your IX", and it advises journalists how to report on sexual assault. It's a veritable cornucopia of  how not to fairly report on the news. The gist of it seems to be that journalists are supposed to treat accusations of sexual assault as if they were proven sexual assaults. That the authors of this site expect journalists to abide by its suggestions would be laughable were it not for Erdely, Hofstra, the Baltimore Sun, and a thousand others. Here are some excerpts:

"Know Your IX has assembled a guide for reporters and editors who are covering gender-based violence, particularly on college campuses."
Use direct quotes from survivors, rather than paraphrasing their accounts, as much as possible. Direct quotes allow the survivor to retain control over the narrative of their personal experiences, which is crucial for survivors, especially those who have been revictimized by disbelieving/dismissive administrators or police departments. It will also help prevent you from accidentally leaving out details that the survivor considers important or from misrepresenting their experiences. The Columbia Spectator’s approach provides a helpful example: When the paper first covered Emma Sulkowicz’s “Carry That Weight” project, it presented it as a video, allowing Emma to talk about her project and about her assault uninterrupted. Using direct quotes also allows you to avoid using the term “allegedly”. As the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls and Women points out in its excellent Reporting on Rape and Sexual Violence” toolkit (also a valuable resource for reporters looking to improve their media coverage of sexual violence), the terms “alleged” or “allegedly” carry a host of negative and positive connotations and cast unwarranted doubt in the readers’ mind as to the validity of the survivors’ story. So long as you credit the survivors’ stories to them, there shouldn’t be any legal obligation to use the term “allegedly.”
          . . . .
"Don’t give false rape reports and sexual assault equal weight; this is false equivalency." 
. . . . 

". . . if your publication has a policy against letting sources read a story before publication, talk to your editor/highers-up about making an exception for stories about sexual assault survivors." 
. . . . 
"If a survivor doesn’t want to share certain information or details you’d hoped to include, particularly about the violence or abuse itself, don’t push it."
Readers here know that we've called attention to countless incidents where journalists have called accusers "survivors" or "victims." We once convinced the New York Times to add the word "alleged" to signify that an accuser is only an "alleged" victim. Most news outlets ignore our entreaties. Maybe they won't after Rolling Stone.

Why is it a problem to call an accuser a "victim" or a "survivor"? Because readers assume that journalists have done their own investigations, so when journalists bestow these terms on accusers based on nothing more than the accuser's ipse dixit, this signals to the reader that the accuser's allegation is factual. This does a grave disservice to the presumptively innocent who are the subject of the accusations since, by necessity, they must be guilty if their accusers are, in fact, "victims."

It also does no favors to rape victims when journalists transform accusers into "victims" without substantiation because, if the accusations are shown to be doubtful -- as in the Rolling Stone story -- this not only undermines confidence in the way journalists cover these stories, it foments distrust in rape accusers.

One solution is for editors to avoid allowing ideologues to write about sexual assault. When an editor has to assign a reporter to cover sexual assault, anyone with a Women's Studies degree should be exempted, as should anyone who volunteers to write it.