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Word Choice and Reporting Sexual Assault Stories

by on November 14, 2016

Covering sexual assault in journalism is an ethical minefield. In light of recent nationally reported cases involving sexual assault and rape, journalists have been heavily scrutinized for their diction and level of disclosure. It is paramount for journalists to fully describe the non consensual nature of sexual violence and to understand the topic of rape, including how to fairly report on the matter.

In journalism, word choice is important. When reporting on stories of rape and sexual assault, word choose it too important to ignore. Clear language should communicate what happened in each case. According to Columbia Journalism Review, commonly used rhetoric like “alleged,” “admits,” and “confesses” because it often asserts either shame or uncertainty regarding the quotes of victims. Using the term “alleged” implies that there is a certain amount of disbelief that the crime over occurred, which is problematic and reinforces a culture of victim blaming and shaming. Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault suggests that journalists use “reported” because it is a more neutral term and indicates that a story is a part of the justice system. Another definite is to never label a victim, the preferred standard, as an “accuser” because of the negative stereotype it reinforces.

Furthermore, journalists should stop sugarcoating and “sanitizing” language. In an article on Poynter written by Kelly Mcbride, she highlights the fact that reporters should be explicit in their language in order to truthfully tell stories about rape. For example, rather than say it was an act of intercourse, you should describe it as “forced penile-vaginal penetration or rape.” The key here is to not imply consent with your word choice. Also, if a rape doesn’t include violence that results in medical attention, it is still paramount to never suggest consent.

Understanding the implications of reporting on rape is another key to ethical journalism in these cases. Specifically, the type of information and the amount of information in a story should be scrutinized. A major issue has been whether or not to publish the victim’s name in the story. Some people have advocated for publishing the names of victims; however, this position ignores the nature of these types of crimes and the public scrutiny that often follows victims. Many victims do not come forward because they fear the culture of condemnation that persists in the country. By publishing names, journalists risk discouraging future victims. Mcbride states, “when we don’t name people who have been sexually assaulted, we spare them from the shame and the stigma associated with the crime of rape.”

Additionally, journalists should be hesitant about the level of information they publish about victims. Details such a manner of dress, appearance, private life, and other needless description of the assault can lead to victim blaming or re-victimization.

Ethical questions still remain in many special circumstances, and I am specifically interested in the stories that typically follow high-profile men in Hollywood and sports. How should journalists write stories about the rape cases that involve men like Kobe Bryant or Nate Parker? Why do such stories often reinforce victim blaming more than others? Should journalists report the same way in all cases, even though nature of newsworthiness is completely changed by the notoriety of these men?


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