Navigating the challenges of covering Ariel Castro hearing

Live television coverage gave worldwide audiences a peek into the horrors that unfolded for 13,226 days at the Cleveland, Ohio, house owned by Ariel Castro. Journalists have an obligation to cover the story thoroughly and carefully, knowing the graphic testimony will be hard for the public to handle.

While the hearing was going on, I asked fellow faculty member Kelly McBride, who has led Poynter seminars on covering sex abuse, to offer advice to journalists covering the story. McBride explains how journalists can help the audience digest the details of the hearing, and why journalists may ethically air the information about these rapes.

Today's hearing reminds journalists that victims sometimes want to be heard. Michelle Knight, one of the young women Castro kidnapped, told the court: "After eleven years, I am finally being heard, and it is liberating.”

In a piece published in May, McBride offered a number of other guidelines for covering rape and sexual abuse:

  • "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 people who have been raped. 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."

Related training: Resources for covering sexual abuse of children | “Reporting on Sexual Violence," a News University course

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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