The stories we tell and the stories we don't
The following speech was given by New York Times David Carr Fellow Amanda Hess at a national media summit on advancing how the media approaches sexual violence and awarding excellence in journalistic coverage of sexual assault hosted by Raliance.org. The Raliance Media Summit was a combined effort of The Poynter Institute and Raliance, a collaborative initiative to end sexual violence in one generation. Raliance funded the event and sponsored this post.
In November of 2014, Rolling Stone published a story that I’m betting that you all have heard of. It was called “A Rape On Campus.”
It was a story about a horrific gang rape that occurred in a frat house on the campus of the University of Virginia. It got a lot of attention when it came out. It was the most-read feature Rolling Stone ever published about anyone who was not a celebrity. And then it got a lot more attention, because it was revealed that the rape at the center of the story never happened.
What interests me in this example is that the experienced journalists at Rolling Stone wanted so badly to tell this particular story about this particular rape that they overlooked all of the holes in the account, all of the details they couldn’t confirm, all of the witnesses and assailants they tried to track down but who just never materialized — probably because most of them did not exist. After all, there are countless sexual assaults committed on and off college campuses every year that Rolling Stone could have focused on for that story. Why write about this one?
When Rolling Stone retracted “A Rape on Campus,” the story became evidence of the specific kinds of stories that journalists often like to tell about sexual violence: the kinds of assaults that we publicize; the types of victims that we gravitate toward; and the distortions that can happen when the crime of sexual violence turns into a piece of journalism.
The Rolling Stone story came about when a veteran magazine reporter who was known for her cinematic nonfiction narratives contacted a sexual assault victim’s advocate at the University of Virginia, looking for a story that could be “emblematic” of the sexual assault crisis on college campuses. That advocate put the reporter in touch with many young women on campus who said that they had been raped there by acquaintances, friends and dates.
But the reporter ultimately decided to focus the story on just one of them, a girl named Jackie. She told her that as a freshman, she had been the victim of a sick fraternity initiation ritual. Jackie said she had been taken on a date by a handsome fellow student, then lured into a dark room in his frat house where she said she was trapped, punched in the face, shoved onto a glass coffee table, which shattered beneath her, and subjected to “three hours of agony” where she was raped by seven men. When Jackie finally escaped, she said, she ran from the party barefoot, her face beaten, her dress covered in blood. She called her friends who told her not to go to the hospital or report the rape because they didn’t want to get uninvited from frat parties.
So, the Rolling Stone reporter may have said that she was looking for an “emblematic” story, but she ended up choosing a story that was not at all representative of how assaults typically play out on campus. When the Columbia School of Journalism published a long postmortem about what went wrong with the Rolling Stone story, it noted that there were “other, adjudicated cases of rape at the university that could have illustrated [the magazine’s] narrative,” but that “none was as shocking and dramatic as Jackie's.”
When I think about sexual assault reporting, and how we can try to do it better, I find myself coming back to some very fundamental questions about what the role of the journalist even is. Is it our job to educate the public? To illuminate reality? To accurately report on people’s lives? Or is it to hook readers with a dramatic, crazy, maybe even entertaining story? In my work, I often feel like I’m trying to do both of those things at the same time. But those impulses are often at odds with one another, and that tension is particularly fraught, I think, when it comes to sexual assault reporting.
When we gravitate toward the most “shocking” stories, we necessarily distort reality. And as we do that, we send messages about what’s important. One of the messages we send is that the violence of rape isn’t violent enough. It’s only really newsworthy if the victim gets punched in the face, too.
Also, it helps if the victim conforms to certain characteristics.
Here are some ways in which Jackie is described in the Rolling Stone story: She is “a chatty, straight-A achiever” who “wasn't a drinker.” She was proud of herself for having selecting “a tasteful red dress with a high neckline” to head out on her date. When they arrived at the fraternity party, Jackie was “sober but giddy.” When her crush asked her to go upstairs, where it was quiet and they could talk, “her heart quickened.”
So: She was romantic, naïve, modest, innocent. She was also young, pretty and white, a fact that was emphasized in the illustrations that appeared with the piece. The pictures showed a white girl wearing cut-off shorts and a tank top, her head buried in her hands, big red hand prints all over her body. Another illustration showed a party scene, with the floor covered in red Solo cups and a white bra discarded among the trash.
In reality, of course, women are not virginal archetypes wearing white bras under their high-neck dresses. They are human beings. Some of them drink sometimes, just like men do. For many of them, this is not their first frat party.
White women, by the way, are overrepresented in news coverage of victims of crime. We write more words about them. I can’t help but think this might have something to do with the fact that white people are overrepresented among journalists, too. This coverage bias starts when victims are children: White female children are overrepresented in news coverage of missing persons cases, and black female children are underrepresented. They even have a name for it: It’s called “missing white woman syndrome.”
So we have an exceptionally monstrous crime, committed against a uniquely innocent, white victim. And then there’s the location where this alleged crime took place.
The simple assumption that kicked off the Rolling Stone debacle was that the magazine wanted to tell a story about sexual assault on campus. Specifically, it wanted to tell the story of an assault at an elite university. Campus sexual assault has emerged as an area of intense journalistic focus in the past few years. Journalists have produced stories about rape at places like Columbia University, Yale, Stanford, Occidental and the University of Virginia. The Obama administration took up the cause. As Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand put it, a few months before the Rolling Stone article was published: “We should never accept the fact that women are at a greater risk of sexual assault as soon as they step onto a college campus. But today, they are.”
Actually, they’re not. That’s another little myth that’s likely been communicated to the public and to senators alike by virtue of the sheer volume of stories that have been told about campus rape in recent years. Being a young woman does put a person at a higher risk of sexual victimization, but if you’re a young woman who goes to college, that actually helps to lower your risk. According to Department of Justice, sexual assaults are more pervasive for young adult women who are not in college.
This is not to say that journalists shouldn’t report on exceptionally violent crimes, or on white victims, or on sexual assaults that occur on college campuses. It’s hard to argue against covering any individual victim’s story. But too many assaults happen for us to cover them all. We are always going to be looking for the story that “emblematizes” the problem. But when we zoom out and look at the big picture, we see that there are a lot of forms of sexual violence that we don’t cover much at all.
What would journalism look like if it accurately reflected the whole scope of sexual violence? We would see more working-class victims, elderly victims, some male victims, too. We would read stories about abuse committed not just by strangers or sadistic frat boys but by family members and committed partners, not just in elite colleges but in detention facilities. Why it is that we seem to be reporting so much on the sexual assaults experienced by white women in college, often to the exclusion of these other crimes?
Most journalists attended college, too. Some of us were college women once. Others have daughters in college or who will be heading there soon. We feel close to this story. We hear about these incidents. We’re biased toward them.
I think at some level some of these stories seem primed to stoke fears of young women leaving home, going out on their own and pursuing an independent life. And finally, I think we sense a tension in these stories. Big fancy schools are supposed to be these idyllic places that develop and protect their students and send them off to do great things — sometimes in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition costs — and when violent crimes happen, it produces a kind of dramatic irony. It feels like news.
This calculation usually happens subconsciously, but sometimes it’s made explicit. I remember that I was working on a story idea — a story that never came to be — for a publication that shall remain nameless, and the vague idea we were playing with was a piece about how misogyny works today.
I was brainstorming this piece with some editors, and we talked about the different segments of society we could use to illustrate how modern misogyny functions — in higher education, among lawyers, among journalists, on Wall Street, in Hollywood. And after we had talked through these ideas, I said, “It seems that right now we’re focusing a lot on elite women, and that maybe we should think about how it affects women who are less privileged.” And an editor said to me, “Well, everybody knows that lower-class women deal with this stuff. The surprising thing is that happens even to women who are otherwise so advantaged.”
Speaking as an elite woman myself, it’s not a surprise to me that misogyny is a problem among middle- and upper-class professionals. And we may assume that working-class women experience sexual victimization and gender discrimination, but we don’t write about it enough to really investigate how it works, what it feels like, how it affects people’s lives and what can be done about it. There is this odd tendency among some journalists to simultaneously be drawn toward stories they already understand and also argue that only they are surprising. We can’t have it both ways.
The last aspect of the Rolling Stone story I’d like to discuss is its time frame. The article begins at the moment of the assault. It doesn’t concern itself with the social and cultural dynamics that allow something like that to happen. It doesn’t care what turned these young men into psychopaths. In fact, it cares so little about the perpetrators that the reporter didn’t even bother to figure out that the boys didn’t exist. That tendency is not unique to this story. Journalists are drawn toward mythical virginal victim types, but they also tend to draw perpetrators of sexual violence as uniquely perverse, horrific monsters. Perpetrators of sexual abuse are less people than they are folk devils, or else cyphers.
That’s not real life. As much progress as journalists have made in covering acquaintance rape as a serious crime and a legitimate topic of coverage, we still fall behind in recognizing the many, many assaults that happen within couples and families.
Whenever I see one of those gross tip sheets distributed by cops or published in the newspaper that advise women on how to avoid rape — you know, don’t drink, don’t go out alone at night, whatever — I also think that the most helpful tip would say, “Do not date people, and definitely don’t marry them, and if you want to be really safe, don’t be related to any of them, either.” So many sexual assaults are perpetrated by partners, spouses, family members. Painting perpetrators as these alien monsters stops us from seeing that, and it also stops us from even considering how these behaviors can be prevented in our own communities, and how perpetrators can be reformed.
Sexual violence is not exactly a phenomenon reporters don’t cover. It is a widely publicized crime. Journalists report on sexual assaults more than we report on any other crime except for murder. Women are more likely to be presented as crime victims in the news than men are, even though in reality, men are more likely to experience violent crimes. That, in itself, is a problem. The press is very interested in female victims, but often so incurious about all of our other human experiences and contributions. On some level, reporting better on sexual assault means reporting more about women in ways that have nothing to do with that.
There is this balance that sometimes feels unresolveable, to me, between recognizing the ways in which women are victimized and not reducing women to victims.
One of my favorite pieces that’s ever been written about the experience of being a victim of sexual violence was published on VICE by an amazing writer named Gina Tron. It’s called, “I Got Raped, and Then My Problems Started.” In the piece, she describes being raped by an acquaintance, being mocked and ridiculed by police, slut-shamed by the district attorney and having her case thrown out because it just didn’t seem winnable. I really suggest you read the whole thing. But she also talks about what happened when friends and acquaintances and family members heard about what happened to her.
I initially only told a few people I trusted about what happened—I wanted to keep the situation on the down-low, since I was worried people would react in all kinds of ways that would make me uncomfortable. Well, that didn’t work out. Within a few days 60 or 70 people knew, and nobody wanted to hang out with me, out of fear that as a “rape victim” I’d burst into tears unpredictably or whatever. One of my best friends at the time told me she couldn’t be my friend anymore and wouldn’t even listen to me when I told her details about the assault. She said it was too heavy to hear, and claimed that what happened to me had given her post-traumatic stress disorder.
A few family members told me that they were grieving over me, because rape is a “fate worse than death.” Another told me that they were not shocked this happened to me because I was a victim by nature. “Some people are victims and some are predators,” they said. “You are a victim.”
I refuse to feel marked as damaged goods because of this ordeal. I think that attitude towards sexual assault is archaic and absurd. I think many people who have been raped are afraid to talk about what happened to them, but rape shouldn’t be a taboo topic. Some people have accused me of being borderline sociopathic about the whole thing and say I speak of it like someone might talk about eating a sandwich. But I can’t think of it as a catastrophic event. It’s something that happened to me. I’m sorry if this is disturbing to read about, but a lot of people have to go through this. To pretend that these kinds of things aren’t happening is a lot more disturbing to me than talking about it.
Gina’s insight here is so valuable. It hurts women when crimes against them are devalued and dismissed. But it also hurts them when the crime of sexual violence is seen as so horrific, life-ruining and unimaginable that it reduces a person into nothing more than her victim status.
I experienced a tiny sliver of that when I wrote a story several years ago called, “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet.” It was about the rampant gendered harassment, threats and stalking that occurs against women online, and about how neither the legal system nor technology companies are doing much to deal with it, and it also talked about my own experience with being threatened and stalked online by someone I barely knew. I was really proud of that story. I felt that I’d framed a new issue in an interesting way. And when TV shows and radio programs reached out to interview me about it, it felt gratifying to know that people had read the story and responded to it.
But when I went on these shows, they weren’t very interested in talking to me as a writer of a great piece of journalism. They wanted to talk with me as a victim. They wanted to use my story of abuse, and its shocking and horrifying details, to hook their own readers. They turned me into something that I didn’t recognize: a victim who had bravely spoken out. I didn’t see myself that way, and it felt wrong to be paraded around like that.
That experience has stuck with me whenever I write about anyone who has experienced tragedy or violence or has been wronged. How can we begin to illuminate people’s real experiences with sexual violence? How can our reporting begin to look more like real life? I don’t have the perfect answer to that question, but I think it starts by listening to victims — all kinds of victims — and really listening to them, not extracting the most sensational details and moving on. There is so much more to talk about here than the facts of the crime. If we look deeper into the cultural and social dynamics of sexual violence, we will find intrigue and tension and narrative there, too. The real stories are interesting and nuanced and surprising.
Some stories have to stand in for all the stories that will never be told. That is the compact journalism requires. But to do this responsibly, we must remember that every rape story is different. And no individual thinks of him or herself as an emblem.