Lara Logan’s attack was an exception: The stories we miss about rape and sexual violence

The attack on CBS reporter Lara Logan is a reminder that sexual violence happens to people where they work; it happens to adults on streets, in cars, at parks; it happens to children in their homes, neighborhoods, places of worship. The stories we tell — and believe — are affected by where and how these crimes happen.

Picture Catherine, a 25-year-old from Brighton, Mass., robbed while walking home from her grandmother’s birthday party Friday night.

You have questions:

  • Was Catherine hurt?
  • What was taken?
  • Were the attackers caught?
  • And how old is her grandmother, anyway?

Now picture Catherine, a 25-year-old from Brighton, Mass., robbed while walking home from a bar Friday night.

You have other questions:

  • Was she drinking? Was she drunk?
  • Is she OK?
  • Who attacked her?

And finally, picture Catherine, a 25-year-old from Brighton, Mass., raped while walking home from a bar Friday night.

You have additional questions:

  • What was she wearing?
  • Did something happen at the bar?
  • Were there any witnesses? (This is sometimes a coded question, which can mean: How do we know she’s telling the truth?)

What if Catherine were Calvin, a 25-year-old man? What would we want to know? His size? His race? Were weapons involved?

If these crimes occurred the way they’re each described, how differently would these stories be written? Would they be written at all?

The latest estimates show that 1 in 6 women will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime. Those women will not receive a call from the President of the United States or benefit from his efforts to demand justice, as Logan did after being attacked in Egypt while covering the celebration following President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.

Most of the time, we do not even know a crime occurred. And when we do report on these crimes, we treat them differently.

We consider whether to call people victims or survivors. We sometimes let survivors decide whether their names are used (the accused has no choice):

  • Joanna Connors, a Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist who wrote a personal narrative in 2008 about her experience as a rape victim, said she believes more and more victims are going to want to start being identified — in part because it’s more acceptable to do so, but also because it can be a powerful part of the healing process. In a phone interview Wednesday with Poynter’s Mallary Tenore, Connors referenced a recent incident involving a rape victim who asked the Plain Dealer to publish her name, in part to encourage other rape victims to come forward.”We’re sort of at a mid-point where victims themselves are saying, ‘Enough of this,’” Connors said. “I would never argue that a victim has to have her name out there, but I think we may start to see victims say, ‘I want to talk about this because it’s empowering.’ “Victims often feel as though they’ve lost all control after a sexual assault, so giving them the option to be named can be helpful. “My basic thought is that you take your cues from the victim/survivor,” Connors said. “I think instead of assuming they don’t want their names used, which is what news organizations do, just ask and let them be the ones to decide.”

We use ambiguous language about the crime that can mask its violent nature.

  • Cara Tabachnick, news editor of TheCrimeReport.org, says this ambiguity can lead people to believe that the crime is not as bad as the victim and others are making it out to be. The best approach, she said, is to avoid euphemisms and tell it like it is.”I think being vague creates more questions than necessary,” Tabachnick said in a phone interview with Tenore this week. “You have to put enough details in the story so readers know that it’s not just someone putting their hand up a girl’s skirt and squeezing her butt.”For example, Tabachnick referred to a tweet by Nir Rosen, a NYU fellow who resigned after tweeting offensive remarks about CBS’ Logan. One of his tweets demonstrated that people do not always take sexual assault seriously. “Look, she was probably groped like thousands of other women,” Rosen tweeted.Tabachnick said that reporting on the seriousness of sexual assault also requires a willingness to look at the long-term effects of this kind of crime. “How does this affect someone? How does it affect their ability to continue with their relationships, have sex and children of their own? I think it’s important to bring all that into the picture,” she said.
  • There are important differences between a victim and a survivor, a rapist, a pedophile, an abuser, sexual assault and rape. Let’s respect the range of sex crimes we cover, just as we use precise language to describe sexuality and race.

We question the circumstances of the crime.

  • Anna North, who wrote about the coverage of Logan’s attack for Jezebel, told Tenore she’s noticed that when journalists cover sexual violence, they sometimes try to identify causes of the crime in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t. “I think we need to be really careful when we talk about things like causes of sexual assault,” North said by phone on Wednesday. “It’s super easy to say that what Lara Logan was doing was dangerous, and really we shouldn’t be looking at what the victim has done but what the perpetrator has done. It’s not the victim’s responsibility to avoid sexual assault, and that’s something that gets lost in a lot of sexual assault coverage.”
  • Geneva Overholser pointed out via e-mail this week, violence in the line of reporting is a professional reality. “To say that women should not be putting themselves in violent situations is virtually akin to saying that women should not be journalists,” said Overholser, the director of USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism, who has written about the importance of naming rape victims and their accusers.”Do we say that war reporters should not place themselves in the midst of war? There is a long history of holding women responsible for the acts of violence committed against them, and it is a sad history indeed, marked by injustice, ignorance and blindness to the real fault, which lies in the hands of those committing the violence.”

Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said crime accounted for 4 percent of news organizations’ overall coverage in 2010. It accounted for six percent of the coverage in 2009, 5 percent in 2008 and 8 percent in 2007.

Online news services had the most crime coverage (6 percent), compared to cable news (4 percent) and newspapers (about 3 percent, not including local crimes). PEJ only tracks crime coverage overall, so it can’t say how much of the coverage was related to sexual violence, Jurkowitz told Tenore by phone Thursday.

We usually hear about rape and sexual assaults under one of these circumstances:

These are the stories we miss:

  • Every two minutes, someone somewhere in the United States is sexually assaulted.
  • 2 in 3 sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows.
  • Sexual assaults have declined 60 percent since 1993 and not because fewer assaults are being reported, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

We miss many of these stories, in part, because the people involved don’t want them told. Sometimes we miss them because we start with breaking news, says Poynter’s Kelly McBride. If you begin with an individual crime, you focus on the specifics, the victim, the circumstances and lose the wider view. If we started at another point in the timeline of sexual violence, then we could tell different stories, she says.

Now picture Catherine, that 25-year-old from Brighton, Mass. She leaves her family’s bar after celebrating grandma’s birthday Friday night, and arrives home safely.

Editor’s Note: Mallary Tenore and I worked together on the concept for this piece. Mallary conducted all of the interviews and wrote those sections, while I did most of the other writing.

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_U4RVKZJEJQPTWFUULVY7II6HGY kk4509

    Oh goodness. We don’t have gang bangs in the streets with the public in full view. You don’t have a mass of men around you around you wondering who is going to rape torture next. You don’t scream in a crowd of people for 30 minutes without help. I have no words for how bad rape is but it does not compare to the degradation that Lara Logan went through. Her ordeal would have got out no matter who because it was horrendous.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Martha, Thank you for commenting and for sharing your reaction to this article. I’m grateful for your perspective. I admire Lara Logan and am horrified by what happened to her. I appreciate her willingness to make the incident public, and hope that justice will be served. In no way do I blame her for being attacked, for being famous or for being the recipient of goodwill. I only wish that the media were more attentive to other victims’ stories so that as a country we truly understood how sexual violence happens and its consequences, not only in the exceptional cases we tend to cover but in the most common ones. Thank you again for writing and sharing your thoughts. –Julie Moos, Director of Poynter Online

  • Anonymous

    This statement in the article is offensive, “The latest estimates show that 1 in 6 women will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime. Those women will not receive a call from the President of the United States or benefit from his efforts to demand justice, as Logan did after being attacked in Egypt while covering the celebration following President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.”
    Most people won’t receive Presidential Medal Honors either, be inducting into the Kennedy Center and go on down the list. Lara Logan is a famous woman, no one’s disputing that. She was covering the story in Egypt and she was assaulted. President Obama’s calling her is nothing to belittle or blame her for — or to blame Mr. Obama for. But your comments come dangerously close to that.
    Lara Logan is one victim that is known. Don’t try to slime her. She was courageous to let the news come out. Your article is offensive because that comment blames her. As rape survivor, I find this entire article to be offensive and the refusal to call out Nir Rosen for expressing the mind set of a rapist (She had it coming) demonstrates just how disgusting this article is.
    Can’t call out the sentiment of rapist, their thought process but you can whine that Lara Logan got a phone call from President Obama while others won’t. You need to do some growing up and you need to speak some victims and victims’ advocates because your story is offensive.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Lonnajean, you are right. There are way too many crimes against women that go unreported, unrecognized and unaddressed. I hope, over time, we can all work together to change that. –Julie Moos, Director of Poynter Online

  • Anonymous

    i am so happy to see someone say what i was thinking – of course this crime against lara logan was heinous but
    brutal rape, re-rape, torture, maiming, happens to women everywhere….hundreds of thousands of women and girls are victims everyday in many countries…they are just trying to survive, not going to foreign countries to put themselves in harm’s way. just walking for miles to get water for their families, or from the fields where they work. this kind of brutality is commonplace and gets little media coverage……..wake up folks…this is the plight of women worldwide.