In aftermath of Lara Logan attack, what to say about sexual assault

In the online comments about CBS reporter Lara Logan’s assault by an Egyptian mob, there are many examples of what not to say.

There is a lot of good writing about why such false logic persists. I won’t rehash it.

But what can you say about sexual assault? When bad information and horrible commentary are dominating a news story, I always find it helpful to look for facts that we know to be true and ask questions that might help our understanding.

  • Women are more likely than men to be victims of sexual assault. The statistics on this are conclusive, even though it’s hard to say what the real incidence of rape is. Because sexual assault is vastly under-reported to authorities, researchers turn to surveys to determine the actual incidence. Studies estimate that over the course of her lifetime, somewhere between 12 to 25 percent of women are sexually assaulted.
  • Children are commonly victims of sexual assault, so in that way, the attack on Logan, like most of the assaults that get news coverage, was out of the ordinary.
  • Sexual assault happens more often during times of war, civil unrest and in societies that don’t protect the civil rights of women. It is a crime used by oppressors as a weapon to intimidate and silence. Women in Egypt are talking about how common Logan’s experience is in their society.
  • It’s hard to say how many journalists are sexually assaulted in the course of doing their jobs. But female journalists face greater threats in some parts of the world. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented a handful of cases, according to communications director Gypsy Guillen Kaiser. “We are told about these things and it helps understand the risks,” she said. “We don’t always write about them, because sometimes we are told in confidentiality.” In 2005 CPJ documented a case where reporters covering Egyptian elections were beaten and at least one was threatened with rape.
  • We don’t know why Logan’s attackers assaulted her. Were they just an out-of-control mob? Were they pro-Mubarak supporters trying to intimidate outside journalists? Were they attacking her because of her ethnicity or a perception of her religion? We don’t know for sure. We might never know.
  • Most of the time, journalists do not reveal the names of survivors of sexual assault, because the crime is such an invasion of privacy. CBS officials said they released details of the assault on Logan after a reporter from the Associated Press called. One would assume Logan was part of that decision.
  • Most victims appreciate the privacy. Some do not. They feel that going nameless reinforces the notion that what happened to them wasn’t real, or wasn’t that bad, or was their fault.

My first instinct, when a reporter told me about Logan’s assault, was to be quiet. I thought about Logan’s privacy and about how I knew some would respond, blaming her for what happened. I didn’t want to add fuel to that fire.

But when we turn away from a sexual assault, we amplify the voices that would blame the victim or minimize the attack. Our instinct to avert our eyes leaves the victim to face a world of judgment on her own.

There is so much we can say about sexual assault. As a society, we rarely talk about it, until a particularly dramatic event. Then we talk about the circumstances of the event: Where was she? What happened? In asking those questions, we allow myths and suspicions to guide our conversations. But we forget to bring in all the facts that we do know.

So if we talk about Logan’s ordeal, let’s do so in the context of things we know to be true.

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    Kelly McBride

    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute since 2002 and is now its vice president.


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