How journalists can provide fair coverage when reporting on rape charge in Cleveland case
Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight and Gina DeJesus are household names. The three women, freed from a house in Cleveland after they were separately kidnapped as teenagers about a decade ago, are the central characters in a story that has dominated the news this week and will likely pop up sporadically for years.
All three are survivors of a stolen life and a failed police investigation. Police charges filed Wednesday confirmed that investigators believe all three are sexual assault survivors as well. Unlike most sexual assault victims, all three will be the opposite of anonymous in the media.
Their names are central to their story, and that cannot be avoided.
As details of their ordeal come out -- through formal charges, investigative documents, personal interviews and leaks -- journalists and others will have to decide what, if any, privacy can be attained for these survivors. Here are a few things journalists can do to report fairly on this difficult story.
- Use clear language when reporting on rape. Journalists sometimes slip into the habit of making victims the "actors" as a way of sanitizing the language. We say, for instance, that a young girl "performed an oral sex act," rather than, “He forced his genitals into her mouth.” Words and sentence structure matter in stories about rape.
- Describe charges of sex without consent as rape, not anything less. While no rational person will suggest that these women were complicit in their ordeal, sometimes writers minimize the trauma of rape by describing it as sex or intercourse if the rape doesn’t involve the kind of physical violence that requires medical attention.
- Be careful about details that could imply you are blaming victims. Describing what a girl was wearing, or how she made a choice, can be perceived as assigning blame.
- Avoid dwelling on gratuitous or salacious details about sexual assaults. Specific descriptions of this ordeal are likely to become public over time. Some rape victims I’ve talked with in the past have told me they felt re-victimized when journalists described private parts of their body in news reports.
- For more tips, see this free News University course, "Reporting on Sexual Violence."
When we don't name people who have been sexually assaulted, we spare them from the shame and stigma associated with the crime of rape.
But in some cases, we can't avoid naming victims, especially when their names are so central to the story. Think Elizabeth Smart. Then compare that story the recent case involving the Steubenville football players. Both were high-profile cases. But the Steubenville case followed common newsroom protocols of not naming victims. The Smart case did not.
Stories like the one in Cleveland have the power to change our common understanding of rape. When rape accompanies other sensational crimes, like kidnapping, we seem to have fewer discussions about the victim’s culpability. We will name Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight and Gina DeJesus as we tell their story and, for the most part, people won't wonder why.
Because of the magnitude of their ordeal, they won’t be subject to the questioning and doubt that many rape victims endure. Over time, maybe their stories will help extend that acknowledgement of suffering to other victims who have an entirely different experience.