November 22, 2017

Is touching someone without their permission the same as exposing yourself to a subordinate?

Is ogling someone or forcing a sloppy kiss on them the same as masturbating in front of them?

Journalists and pundits alike are having to grapple with an ever-expanding "degree of disgusting behavior" scale as they write about allegations of sexual harassment and even sexual assault in the wake of the #metoo movement.

So it's no wonder that questions are being raised about what language to use when describing the awful conduct the stories are documenting.

Enter the Associated Press with a new guideline that attempts to capture the scope of each aggression without diminishing it.

In a blog post Tuesday, John Daniszewski, AP's vice president of standards, laid out his reasoning for using a new term: sexual misconduct.

“'Sexual harassment' has a particular legal meaning. It is, per Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 'inappropriate, unwelcome, and, typically, persistent behavior, as by an employer or co-worker, that is sexual in nature, specifically when actionable under federal or state statutes,'” he wrote.

"While that definition is broad, encompassing many kinds of misbehavior, the word 'harassment' is too mild to describe some of the activities that have been alleged in recent weeks. Beyond mere harassment, these have ranged to allegations of assault, serious abuse, pedophilia and even rape."

Misconduct, he wrote, "encompasses a broader range of sexual misbehavior and does not run the risk of diminishing some of the alleged acts." 
He goes on to advise his colleagues that they should be as specific as they can about the actual actions that a person is being accused of — such as groping, unwanted kissing, disrobing or verbal or physical abuse or assault.

You could probably make a point that misconduct doesn't quite capture the depth of the experience for the victim, either. After all, the definition for that is "unacceptable or improper behavior, especially by an employee or professional person." Unacceptable is pretty strong, but improper is weaker than harassment.

And yet, other synonyms fall short or seem stilted as well. Put sexual in front of these and see how it sounds:

  • Misdeeds
  • Offenses
  • Misbehavior
  • Transgressions
  • Wrongdoing

So misconduct, while not perfect, seems as good a word as any to use in headlines, display type, chyrons or stories.

And as long as we're discussing what language to use in these stories, here are some words to stay away from:

  • Scandal. The word itself has become shorthand for just about any misdeed, from embezzling to living a double life. It also somewhat implies consenting people who are parties to it. That's far from the case with sexual harassment or assault victims.
  • Sex. To say something like "He forced her to have sex" implies that it was a benign act, not a violent or aggressive act.
  • Claimed. This has always been frowned upon, as it is seen as an opinion and not a declaration. Better to say "said."
  • Proclaimed. As in "proclaimed his innocence." See above.
  • Reportedly. A really quick way to diminish your credibility. In stories like this, avoid at all costs.
  • Shenanigans. This might be a word that someones says in a quote or an email response, but it should be paraphrased if at all possible. After all, this is not harmless fun and games.

This is likely a list that will grow as more stories get told and the media becomes more adept at honing in on precise language that lays out facts and helps ensure credibility. 

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