March 13, 2014

BuzzFeed’s Jessica Testa noticed a unique thread on her Twitter timeline Wednesday. Twitter user @steenfox asked her followers who were rape survivors to share what they were wearing when they were attacked. The results were rather spectacular. Some were in college when they were assaulted. Others were children. The precise details of their memories – pink pajamas, or peep-toe flats – provided a window into the insidious nature of rape.

Seeing an opportunity to tell an interesting story, Testa asked some of those same Twitter users for their permission to aggregate the tweets, then organized them by themes, drawing out the trends, adding her observations and sprinkling in some statistics about sexual assault. The result was this BuzzFeed news item that went up Wednesday evening.

It was an effective device to counter many of the myths about rape.

But the BuzzFeed post prompted a backlash. Some people got mad at Testa because she identified the victims. Some of those people missed the note that Testa obtained permission from the survivors to use their tweets and honored their requests to blur out names or faces. @steenfox challenged Testa for failing to get permission from her.


But that raises a question: Permission for what?

Many on Twitter rose up and pointed out that Twitter is public, which is true. And while there is a widely accepted guideline in journalism that you don’t identify rape victims without their permission, @steenfox didn’t identify herself as a survivor in two tweets that asked others to share their stories. Neither did Testa. She is only identified as the one who posed the question.

Because you pose a question that provokes an interesting answer, does that give an ethical claim to control the story that emerges?

That’s a bit of a stretch. Testa did the right thing in gaining permission directly from the Twitter users who shared their stories. And she was right to give an intellectual nod to @steenfox, whose idea it was to ask the question.

But just because these tweets involve sexual assault, there’s no reason to suggest the solicitor has ownership of the answers. If I ask my followers what they thought about online dating or the Sixers losing streak or the Common Core Standards, I wouldn’t have any claim to control their answers, either individually or in the aggregate. In an email to Poynter, @steenfox explained her main objection with BuzzFeed was the use of her image with the story without her permission.

This is tricky territory because BuzzFeed doesn’t identify her as a sexual assault survivor, and it’s not apparent if Testa even knew that fact. (BuzzFeed editors declined to answer that specific question.) Except for sexual assault victims, journalists rarely offer carte blanche anonymity.

However, journalists harbor great reservations around identifying rape survivors. When a woman in Tampa’s Ybor City tweeted out the description of the stranger who had just fled her home after raping her, newsrooms had to decide whether that constituted permission.

Just last week ESPN The Magazine reported that former Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary, a key witness in the Jerry Sandusky criminal case, told his players he had been sexually assaulted as a child. Critics immediately took note.

And not everyone agrees with the policies that grant sexual assault survivors anonymity.

These are healthy conversations to have. But it’s unfortunate that some folks are condemning Testa. It doesn’t really look like she did anything wrong.

Confusion over how to identify rape survivors and tell their stories keeps many reporters from tackling the subject. This reaction stokes those concerns.

Correction: @steenfox revealed in her Twitter timeline that she is a survivor of sexual assault. We got that wrong. It is not clear if BuzzFeed reporter Jessica Testa saw those tweets before publishing her story. BuzzFeed editors declined to clarify. We at Poynter did not see @steenfox’s entire timeline before we published our story. And when we said that @steenfox did not state that she was a survivor, we were referring only to one specific tweet asking other survivors to share a description of what they were wearing when they were assaulted. That sentence has been clarified. Another paragraph has been changed to amplify what @steenfox said her main objection was with the BuzzFeed piece.

For more information and training, see our free NewsU course Reporting on Sexual Violence.

“The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century” is now available. The book is a compilation of essays and case studies edited by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, with a foreword by Bob Steele, for use in newsrooms, classrooms and other settings dedicated to a marketplace of ideas that serves democracyYou can find more information about the book here.

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Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

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