Why asking & answering readers' tough questions is helpful when covering rape

The Register Citizen

The Register Citizen took a smart approach when reporting on the Torrington, Conn., rape and cyberbullying case this past weekend; it published a Q&A that asks questions such as: "What happened?", "How does Torrington compare to Steubenville?" "Why did the Register Citizen identify underage bullies?" and "What don't we know?"

Rape and bullying stories are complicated, so taking the time to ask and answer questions about them is important. So is explaining editorial decisions -- especially if they're decisions that people have criticized or questioned. Last week, the Register Citizen responded to criticism by explaining its decision to publish student tweets about the Torrington case.

Matt DeRienzo, Connecticut Group Editor of the Journal Register Company, explained via email why the Register Citizen published the Q&A.

"We did it because it is a complex story that is easy to develop misunderstandings about if you don’t see the whole picture. And the story got a lot more complex and easier to misunderstand when it exploded across national media," DeRienzo said, noting that the paper will continue to update the Q&A as news develops. "We are linking to the FAQ from all of the (many) stories and editorials we are writing about this case, so that readers can quickly get an overview of everything we know about the case so far." 

A question about the language the paper has used to report on rape cases could be a good addition to the Q&A. On Sunday, DeRienzo responded to a Twitter exchange between Lauren Wolfe and Republican American reporter Bruno Matarazzo Jr. about the use of the word "scandal" in the Torrington case.



"The problem with using the word 'scandal' to describe a sexual assault is that the word connotes something titillating, and [is] ambiguous," Wolfe, director of the Women’s Media Center’s Women Under Siege project, said via email. "We’re not talking about sex, we’re talking about violence. A crime."

After responding to Wolfe's tweet, DeRienzo acknowledged via email that the Register Citizen used the word in a headline on Saturday.

"I think [we were] attempting to reference the way the school district was handling the case (allowing one of these students to play football despite felony robbery charges, for example, and refusing to comment on the bullying of rape victims) more than a reference to an alleged rape itself being a 'scandal,'" he said. "In a case like this, the words we use are incredibly important."

If readers raise questions about the words we use, or the reporting we do, we owe it to them to answer their questions on Twitter, in comments sections -- or in Q&As.

Previously: CNN Steubenville coverage called too sympathetic to teens found guilty | The grammar of assault: Salisbury paper learns why "performing a sex act" misrepresents the crime | Why journalists have trouble reporting on bullying

Correction: The original version of this post misspelled Bruno Matarazzo Jr.'s first name.

  • Mallary Jean Tenore

    As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website, Poynter.org, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the site's live chats. I also help handle the site's social media efforts, and teach social media sessions on the side.


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