From The Boston Globe’s 2002 coverage of sexual abuses within the Catholic Church to the current allegations against Bill Cosby, news coverage of sexual assault cases has reached an all-time high over recent years.
“There has never, in the history of journalism, been this kind of sustained, systemic, ethically excellent, high-impact reporting on institutional failures around sexual assault,” said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia Journalism School, at a recent National Press Club event on the challenges of covering sexual assault.
The number of victims who come forward will only continue to grow as more stories are told, said Jennifer Marsh, vice president for victim services at RAINN. Each year, RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline sees rising numbers of people seeking out help, often a result of seeing a high-profile sexual assault story in the news, she said.
However, few topics are quite as daunting for journalists as sexual assault. Interviewing survivors comes with its own unique set of challenges and pitfalls that can not only compromise a story, but cause tremendous psychological harm to the survivor.
IJNet attended the event and gathered these three focal points of advice for journalists taking on this challenging beat:
Turning traditional reporting models upside down
Before taking on a story like this, it’s vital for journalists to turn their traditional idea of reporting upside down, explained Kristen Lombardi, an investigative reporter at the Center for Public Integrity. This includes relinquishing control over the story, something that may seem like an anathema to many journalists.
“You’re not going to get these kinds of interviews just through your persistence,” Lombardi said. “The best way to approach a victim, I’ve learned, is through a trusted intermediary, and so I’ve always developed sources around the victim.”
This method of finding sources through trusted intermediaries is essential when many sexual assault survivors are skeptical and distrustful of the media.
“These are people [who] are beaten down by the system, disbelieved and silenced often,” she said. “So many people have told me that the institutional response was more traumatic than the assault itself. The level of distrust is very high, and as a reporter it’s the first thing you face.”
Support, empathy and truth
Clinicians who help people with severe emotional damage often discuss the need for the SET model: a three-level system in which the journalist provides support, empathy and truth to the survivor, Shapiro explained.
Support equates to expressing that you support the victim; that you want to tell his or her story. Empathy is the journalist’s expressed understanding of the challenges that the victim is facing in telling his or her story.
It’s the truth element of the SET model that poses the largest challenge to journalists, Shapiro said. It can be easy for journalists to gloss over the details of what they will need to do to finish their story — but it’s these details that are essential to communicate in order to establish informed consent.
“I’ve always felt that it’s really best up front to explain your goals for your story or your series,” Lombardi said. “Prepare victims for what lies ahead. ‘This is my reporting process, this is what it’s going to take, I’m going to have to talk to XYZ, it could and will include your alleged perpetrator.’ Making sure they’re fully aware of what it’s going to take up front is very helpful.”
Preparing for backlash
Many survivors of sexual assault elect to speak to the media as a form of self-empowerment, said Liz Seccuro, an author and activist who went public with her own story in 1985. And while going public can indeed be an empowering experience, the rise of social media makes it easier than ever for sexual assault victims to become the subjects of intense vitriol.
“What I didn’t expect was the backlash,” she said. “Regardless of how much SET was done and how much best practices were done, the complete and utter hatred and taking down of a victim regardless of how well you tell the story is going to happen."
For that reason, reporters must always anticipate negative backlash to any sexual assault story — and tell victims to anticipate the same.
At RAINN, Marsh said victims are advised to stay away from social media — and the comments sections on news sites — after sharing their story with journalists. Subsequently, any journalist hoping to cover a sexual assault story should always communicate these things to their subjects.
“Happily, the comments section at a lot of daily news sites is quickly fading, so maybe the trolls are gonna have to find another hobby,” Shapiro said.
Still have questions about reporting on sexual assault? The Dart Center has compiled a collection of 85 resources, including tip sheets, multimedia and more, to help journalists cover this topic.
Pictured [left to right]: Jennifer Marsh, Liz Seccuro, Bruce Shapiro and Kristen Lombardi.
Main image taken by Sam Berkhead.