The grammar of assault: Salisbury paper learns why 'performing a sex act' misrepresents the crime
The headline originally read, “Mother finds daughter performing sex act on man staying in home.” The same language was used in the lead, making it seem as though the man had not committed a crime. After finding out about the story through a listserv I'm on, I contacted Cook, who changed the wording to say that the girl was sexually assaulted.
“We have re-edited the story online, and we will figure out a way to clarify or correct it,” Cook said in a phone interview. “It's a terrible situation. There’s really no great way to handle it."
The reporter on the story, Nathan Hardin, said he thought law enforcement's description of what happened was too graphic to publish, so he used the phrase “performed a sexual act” instead. A copy editor then repeated the phrase when writing a headline. As of Wednesday afternoon, neither Hardin nor Cook had heard from readers about the wording.
Hardin said that in retrospect, he would have changed it. "It gave me pause when I first read over it, and I didn't get a chance to go back and take another look at it," he said by phone. "I'm sure a lot of journalists can understand. I had a number of different stories I was working on."
Regardless, he said, slowing down would have helped.
"Clearly, when I cover sexual assault stories we always try to be sensitive to the victims and the family, and we also try to explain circumstances surrounding the suspect's arrest," he said. "This is just another example of how we really need to take a step back on these stories and take a look at how they'll affect the victim and their family."
Cook agreed, saying the original language in the story could have further victimized the 11-year-old. The 19,000-circulation paper tries to guard against this, and doesn’t allow comments on stories about sex crimes for this reason. Other news organizations have taken similar approaches.
Why words & sentence structure matter in sex crime stories
Writing about rape and sexual assault is challenging, and police reporters have been dealing with these kinds of language issues for years. When translating law enforcement jargon, it's easy to fall back on words like "perform." But this word is particularly misleading; it's associated with theater and suggests that someone is on stage, acting, or seeking attention.
"It's a compromise word that we've used for a long time that we need to stop using in journalism and law enforcement," said Poynter's Kelly McBride, a former police reporter. She pointed out that sentence structure matters in stories about sex crimes.
Sometimes it's easier to use the passive voice because we don't want to assign blame to someone who hasn't been convicted. But when a perpetrator has been arrested it's best to cite the police report, make the perpetrator the subject of the sentence, and then assign verbs to him or her. The victim should be the direct object in the sentence. Saying a victim "performed" a sexual act unfairly assigns agency to the victim.
A quick Google search shows that the word "perform" is fairly common in sex crime stories. Earlier this week, for instance, The Daily Mail published a story about a robber who had "forced [a] female victim to perform oral sex at gunpoint." "Perform" is still jarring, but this sentence structure at least makes clear who was controlling the situation.
We do our readers a disservice when we use language that changes or distorts meaning. We don't have to be graphic, but we do have to be clear. Regardless of how the Salisbury situation played out, the victim was a minor and this was a crime. The Salisbury Post story would have also benefited from some context regarding sex assault and perpetrators. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, two in three sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows, as was true in Salisbury.
An ongoing issue
Journalists from news organizations large and small have been criticized for their sex abuse coverage in recent years.
Last year, The New York Times was called out for a story it ran about a young girl who was gang-raped in Cleveland, Texas. The story used descriptions that made it seem as though the girl was somehow responsible for the rape because she "dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s."
At the time, former executive editor Bill Keller called the coverage “ham-handed,” and 48,000 people signed a petition asking the news organization to apologize for its coverage. It did, and then ran a follow-up story that was still flawed.
Readers also criticized The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times earlier this year for confusing sex and rape in their Penn State coverage. Both news organizations responded by writing about the criticism.
The Salisbury Post did its readers a service by changing the headline and the lead. As my colleague Craig Silverman pointed out, it would have been even better if Cook had run a correction the same time the changes were made.
"It's important to be transparent with readers about why the change was necessary," he told me. "Readers may not be happy about the paper's original choice of wording, but at least the correction offers the paper an opportunity to explain why it was used, and why it was changed. It also, of course, provides a necessary element of disclosure and accountability."
Cook said she’s not sure whether the paper will continue to cover the story, but if they do, it will be handled differently.
“When someone brings something to our attention that may come across the wrong way, we take that into account and we try to learn from it," she said. “We'll certainly have our radar up for these sensitivities next time.”