What Ebony story can teach journalists about covering sexual assault

Nearly lost amid this month's coverage of an alleged cover-up of sex abuse at Penn State and reports about whether a comedian aptly apologized for joking about rape, was an update on Genarlow Wilson, a former standout Georgia high school football and track star who was convicted of felony aggravated child molestation in 2005.

Ebony Magazine published an online Q&A with Wilson, telling readers that the now 27-year-old is about to graduate from Atlanta’s Morehouse College, “the black Harvard of the South.” The piece, written by Chandra Thomas Whitfield, sparked such a backlash that editors of the magazine were forced to apologize twice and change the headline before eventually removing the story altogether from its website.

Thomas Whitfield is a personal friend and we agreed to disagree about some aspects of how the story was presented. We agree, however, that her instinct to report an update to this controversial case was on target.

Ebony’s coverage of Wilson can serve as a case study for how journalists should, and should not, cover criminal offenders while providing readers with a greater understanding of the issue of sexual abuse.

The background

Wilson was acquitted of raping an unconscious 17-year-old girl, but convicted of aggravated child molestation of a 15-year-old girl. The legal issues in the case and the ultimate appellate court decision that freed Wilson after serving two years of his 10-year sentence are posted here and here.

Ebony’s story, which is no longer available on its website, was troubling from the very start. Its headline -- “From Notorious to Glorious: Why Genarlow Wilson Is No Child Molester and Never Was” -- leaped from the top of the page in bold, regal script. The problem is, Wilson was convicted of aggravated child molestation. Even though he was released early, Wilson was never exonerated. Aside from being inaccurate, the headline also appears to both defend and excuse Wilson’s past actions.

Within hours, online criticism over Ebony’s four-page spread erupted in the comment sections on Ebony’s website and on Twitter and Facebook. The story, which some claimed gave Wilson the "star treatment" even led publications like hip hop magazine Vibe to question why Ebony, a woman’s publication, sided with a rapist.

Lessons for writers

Be specific

The language in the story – including use of the term oral sex -- was too vague and does not reveal the truth of what happened in the case, according to Wendy Murphy, a leading victims rights advocate and adjunct professor at New England Law in Boston, where she runs the Judicial Language Project.

“How you tell the story of exactly who is the harm-doer and what is the nature of the harm matters,” Murphy told Poynter in a telephone interview. “The kinds of problems that I see in the project that I run at my law school are needless eroticism, such as calling what happened to her ‘oral sex,’ which is a highly erotic term that is widely understood as a description of pleasurable activity. Using a term that conveys pleasure when you’re describing a crime is always wrong, but particularly when there’s a child involved and especially when it’s highly erotic. It’s just the wrong descriptor.”

Being too vague “gives readers too many alternatives in their brains to latch onto as the truth of the story,” added Murphy. “For most of us, the narrative we read into a story is that which feels most common or the one that’s already in our brain as the thing we conjure up when we hear a certain phrase,” she said. “So when the narrative, collectively, is already off-kilter, and it's repeated, the problem of vagueness is that it indulges a false understanding by allowing the reader’s narrative to take over the truth.”

Use the active voice

Thomas Whitfield won two Journalist of the Year awards -- one from the Atlanta Press Club and another from the Atlanta Association of Black Journalists -- for a 2006 story she wrote about Wilson’s conviction for Atlanta Magazine. Her reporting, along with stories produced by other news organizations, led Georgia lawmakers to pass legislation making the type of crime for which Wilson was convicted a misdemeanor instead of a felony.

In both the long-form story and the Ebony update, Thomas Whitfield states that a 15-year-old victim willingly “performed oral sex” on Wilson and several other males at a New Year’s Eve party. Besides the fact that legally, in Georgia, a 15-year-old cannot consent to oral or any other kind of sex, the term, “performed oral sex” not only eroticizes a crime but it also eliminates the subject of the story, in this case Wilson, from the report, Murphy said.

“When you write about her being a receiver of past harm and he, as the subject, isn’t even in the sentence, it’s almost like he takes no role, no responsibility morally, legally or otherwise because he’s just not present in that style of writing,” she added. “That’s completely separate from what I saw to be the overarching concern of Ebony referring to him as glorious."

“Let’s assume for the sake of argument that this was the only bad thing [Wilson’s] ever done in his life and he’s behaved perfectly ever sense. It’s still a part of who he is and part of his story because he was prosecuted in a public forum for committing a serious public offense,” Murphy continued. “And, is it ever appropriate to call a guy with that kind of background glorious? Reasonable people think he’s a nice guy but you’re telling a story about him because of where he’s been and what he’s done … If you call him glorious, maybe you’re not celebrating him for what he’s done but you’re clearly not condemning it.”

Lessons for editors

Cover all sides of a story, even in a Q&A

Thomas Whitfield, who didn’t expect there to be such an outcry over the Ebony story, said she never intended the piece to be an in-depth retrospective on Wilson.

“It was just to show where he is now, an opportunity for him to talk about his life and what he’s been doing over the last few years,” she said. She assumed that people who read Ebony’s story would already be familiar with Wilson's case, which is her explanation for why many details about the original case were not included in the Ebony.com update.

Providing context, even in a simple pull-out box containing a brief summary of the legal questions and findings in the case, may have saved Ebony some grief. Not all, but some. Thomas Whitfield said adding such a pull-out box would have been an editor’s decision.

Writers can, and online editors should, ensure all angles of a story are covered. That can be achieved even by using links.

All appellate decisions are instantly available, for free, in court databases, Murphy said. These documents can be linked inside a Web story just as Poynter did at the top of this analysis.

Journalists "think the court has two sides, the court tells both sides and the truth somehow comes out," Murphy said. "And in journalism we tell both sides of a story and the reader kind of gets the truth, which emanates from our storytelling. In fact, in legal proceedings, it’s not usually even designed to produce the truth. Legal cases, especially in our legal system where its adversarial at its core, are designed to produce a winner, not the truth. I’m not making a nasty observation; this is the very proud heritage of our system. The truth isn’t even the goal.”

But it is a journalist’s goal.

Respond quickly and with an open mind

It took Ebony’s editors 48 hours to formally respond to a flood of outraged readers after the Wilson story was first posted. That’s too long.

The tone of the magazine’s first apology was defensive. It read, in part: “At EBONY.com, in particular, we are largely a female editorial team and take pride in our consistently progressive stance on women’s issues. To suggest otherwise, simply means that you are not familiar with this website.”

The statement continued to instruct readers that they were wrong for charging EBONY.com with being an apologist for black men, and while the magazine took responsibility for providing only a “glimpse” of the case and not asking Wilson some tough questions about the night the crime happened, editors then stated that they do not believe Wilson is “either a rapist or child molester,” despite his criminal conviction on the latter.

“They basically blew us off and said, ‘We’re women and we’re journalists so you should trust us,’ ” said Gina McCauley, who orchestrated a full-scale online protest against Ebony's Q&A. “What they don’t understand is that the point of the Internet is that we don’t have to trust journalists. You’re not entitled to our trust, you have to earn it. And you don’t earn it by putting up inaccurate, misleading articles.”

Know the power of social media

Readers can be allies or enemies. McCauley, who has been writing about Wilson for the past five years, said that readers of her blog, "What About Our Daughters," first alerted her to Ebony’s article. She sent out “a Code 10, all hands on deck” message to followers on her Facebook fan page, who galvanized to shame Ebony. When that didn’t appear to work, McCauley’s followers then started contacting Ebony’s advertisers, including consumer goods conglomerate Unilever.

McCauley told Poynter in a telephone interview that the campaign against Ebony is a success because the article about Wilson is gone. “I understand the criminal justice system is just chewing up black men and shuttling them into the system, but the victims of black-on-black crime need justice too,” said McCauley, who is also a lawyer.

“Some of the messages we’re sending about the Genarlow Wilson case are very damaging to teenage girls and very damaging to victims of sexual assault."

“The problem isn’t Genarlow Wilson,” McCauley continued. “The problem is when we tell this story, we lie. The problem is that Ebony is doing the work of Genarlow Wilson’s publicists, not the work of journalists.

“…As soon as they realized that their title was untrue, the editors should have taken down the story,” said McCauley. “It’s pretty serious to misrepresent the criminal history of a convicted sexual predator.”

McCauley said at the very least the publication should have immediately issued a retraction or posted an opposing view to give readers a sense of balance. “We would have been happy with that,” she said. Poynter has written extensively on the practice of "unpublishing" stories and would advise journalists to consider a range of options, including correcting the mistakes transparently, adding other viewpoints, or doing additional stories to bring more context to the topic.

McCauley had this advice for Ebony’s editors: “One thousand readers, even if they are as dumb as a door knob, are going to be smarter than one editor just because of the collective knowledge,” she said. “If the Internet rises up and says you got this wrong, that’s the point [when] editors should ask themselves, ‘Do we have this wrong?’ Ebony didn’t do that.”

Lesson learned?

After more than a week’s worth of drama and scrubbing Wilson’s story from its website three separate times, Ebony released its final official response July 17 after removing the story for the last time. In that response, editors said they pulled the story because it had become a distraction from the publication’s “core mission to uplift and advocate for all members of the African American community.”

In a second apology entitled, "Moving Forward Together," posted on the magazine’s website last weekend, editors announced that they are developing a three-part series to educate black America about sexual assault “and to provide a platform for the powerful voices of women who have been affected by rape and sexual molestation."

“We encourage everyone to join this conversation,” the editors wrote.

Ebony didn't say whether some of those voices in the conversation would belong to McCauley, other dissenters or even Genarlow Wilson. If editors can make that happen, they might be able to say something good came of all the mistakes.

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    Tracie Powell

    Tracie Powell is a senior fellow for Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation established by eBay founder-philanthropist Pierre Omidyar to help ensure that Americans come first in our democracy. Tracie is also founder of AllDigitocracy which focuses on media and its impact on diverse communities. 


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