Why the AP isn’t using the term ‘sexual assault’ on its Bill Cosby stories. Yet.
The Associated Press reported this week that Bill Cosby admitted in 2005 that he gave sedatives to a woman in order to have sex with her. If a woman is sedated, she isn’t able to give consent. If sex with an unconscious person is sexual assault, is it ethical for reporters to write this sentence instead: “A man admitted that he gave sedatives to a woman in order to sexually assault her”?
The Associated Press chose not to do that, and Maryclaire Dale, the reporter who broke the Cosby deposition story told me why. Reading through the depositions, she said, it’s a challenge to figure out exactly what you could say concretely. “We have such small excerpts, we don’t have any follow-up questions, everybody can interpret that the way that makes sense to them,” she said.
On the Rachel Maddow Show on Tuesday, Dale said, “The snippets of the depositions that we have tonight certainly don’t show whether the sexual assault allegations are true, but they do show that Cosby acknowledges that he used Quaaludes in the course of sex...what's left unresolved is whether they knew they were using them recreationally or otherwise.”
One of the headlines of Dale’s first piece on the deposition this week read “Cosby said he got drugs to give women for sex” which is, she admits, a little clunky. “It was a few editors standing over a computer trying to fit into a 60-character short headline or a 94-character long headline -- trying to fit the gymnastics of what he said into that headline and not say anything that he did not say.”
Writing the story, though, Dale didn’t feel particularly conflicted about any of the choices she made. She chose to omit some parts of the deposition that she felt weren’t relevant. Most of the decisions, she said, were pretty easy because she kept focusing on what was relevant for her audience, which was primarily the legal ramifications of the documents the AP worked to get unsealed this week.
“The AP’s interest in this story is almost purely legal -- it’s a legal story to us -- other outlets might have a different focus,” she said. The AP first tried to get the documents unsealed in 2006 but were unsuccessful. Dale has been working off and on to report the Cosby story’s legal angle since that time.
Dale reported Wednesday that the woman whose case this deposition is from has asked the judge to unseal the entire deposition, which took place over two days. Should that happen, Dale said, she and her editors will likely face many more ethical decisions -- about what to include and what to omit, what’s relevant and what’s salacious. Cosby’s lawyers had argued during the hearing two weeks ago, Dale said, “that we only wanted the records unsealed so we could write salacious stories” but, she said that the judge argued that the AP and the public have a legitimate interest in knowing what Cosby said under oath.
Dale said that the judge’s decision was based partly on Cosby’s career and persona.
“He’s not just an actor, he’s not just someone people loved on TV, a generation of people loved on TV, he was someone who was on his, the judge called it his ‘electronic soapbox,’ moralizing to others,” Dale said. And while the portions of the deposition released this week don’t technically show Cosby admitting to a criminal act, the story of the full deposition will be more focused. “The key question is pretty limited to whether he did or did not have sex with women who weren’t consenting,” Dale said.
As news organizations write about the full deposition, should it be unsealed, Dale said, there will be more ethical decisions to be made surrounding writing about victims of sexual assault with sensitivity. Here are some questions to think about from Poynter if you're going to be writing about the Cosby cases or any story that has to do with sexual assault:
- Keep in mind your organization’s focus and audience. Is it a legal story? A celebrity story? A story about victims coming forward? Being focused will help you write a better story and eliminate irrelevant details.
- Ask yourself key questions before naming a victim of sexual assault. Weigh your options. Do your own reporting and don't simply follow the lead of other organizations when it comes to naming victims.
- Don’t report salacious details just because they’re available. Think about the details you report in terms of what picture they paint of sexual assault overall. Are you appealing to a prurient interest in order to increase traffic? What alternatives do you have? What harm might be caused by the narrative you've assembled?
- Write about sexual details in a matter-of-fact way. Keep in mind that sexual assault isn't sex, it's violence. If you decide to include relevant details, use the correct terminology. Someone who is sexually assaulted isn't kissing, for example, she's forced to put her mouth on the assailant's mouth.
- Don’t give up on a case when you feel you can do justice to the story. The AP continued to pursue this story for years and is still pursuing it. Legal stories can be hard to report, but they may be worth the wait.
This week, the AP dealt with the privacy of the woman whose case the deposition is from, the former Temple University employee who brought the case against Cosby in 2005, by double-checking with her lawyers that it was OK to use her name in stories.
“Her name was already everywhere,” Dale said, but the AP still felt it was important to ask her whether they could use it. “At this point, her name was out there, lots of organizations were using it, she said OK -- no additional harm was going to be done to her privacy.”
If more of the records are unsealed, news organizations will have to make these decisions on an individual basis for each of the dozens of alleged victims. If you’re going to be writing about these records (or any other stories about victims of sexual assault), follow the example set by the AP in this story.
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