Covering rape: exposing the ugly truth

This week, two major stories have unfolded involving rape.

In the first, comedian Bill Cosby has continued to be accused of raping different women in the past. The allegations have poured forth from different people who have chosen to come forward and tell their stories.

In another, an Oregon woman detailed how she was allegedly raped by four men, including two former Oregon State University football players, in 1998.

Rape is a terrible crime, one that requires sensitivity and diligence on the part of journalists.

Covering stories like these are always extremely difficult. Journalists need to navigate the emotions and horrible details that come with the story, along with the twists and turns of the legal system, and still have the ability to ask questions and get the facts. You want to be sensitive to the victim, you want to be fair to the suspect, and you want to provide accurate coverage for your readers and viewers.

It’s hard, and I really, really hate it.

Covering a rape is always one of the hardest days for a reporter. I hated having to have a victim recount and relive their experience. I hated having to stick a camera in the face of a victim or family member. I hated the frustration of the justice system, which dealt with the degree to which a rapist should be punished.

But think about how much worse it is for a victim. How much worse it is for everyone involved. And when it comes down to it, you have a goal as a journalist: to expose the ugly truth about rape, in the hopes that it will create some change for the better.

In the past week, we’ve seen different and contrasting ways to go about covering it. Some have been with a purpose to make things better. Others have been about sensationalism.

Friday, Oregonian sports columnist John Canzano published an in-depth piece about Brenda Tracy, who had come forward after 16 years to give details about her alleged rape at the hands of four men, two of whom were Beaver football players. Canzano had been in touch with Tracy for months, and worked to develop trust with her to be able to share her story. In the piece, he allows her to give her entire side of the story – what happened, her actions afterward, her conflicting statements to law enforcement, and her difficulty with living with it for 16 years. Reading it, you could tell Canzano had given Tracy the space and time she needed to tell her story; it felt like they had sat down in a room across several days, allowing her to tell her story in her own way, without badgering her with questions.

It could have been left with that. But Canzano took things further to make sure the report was accurate and fair.

He tracked down the police report from the men’s arrests, and included details about their statements to police. He talked to law enforcement about why the men were never charged. He even tried calling the men, one of whom gave his side of the story. And he reached out to head coach Mike Riley. Riley, in turn, responded and gave his account about the decisions he made to suspend the players, and shared his thoughts on his own actions and words from 1998.

Canzano did the leg work to make this a fully-formed story. He sought out and stated the facts, he was sensitive to the victim, and he included as many voices as he could. He asked the tough questions and allowed people to speak freely. He took a 16-year-old story and got answers about it. As a result, OSU has come out to address the issue, with the university president vowing to launch an investigation. And both Riley and Tracy have expressed willingness to have her share her story on campus.

But contrast that with the coverage of the Bill Cosby rape accusations, and you’ll see the wrong ways to cover this kind of story.

The absolute worst example came last night on CNN.

Host Don Lemon was interviewing alleged Cosby rape victim Joan Tarshis when he decided to lecture her on how to prevent a rape.

“There are ways not to perform oral sex if you didn’t want to do it,” Lemon said, as if he was teaching a class in how to not be raped.

Then, in an unbelievable exchange that needs to be seen to be believed, Lemon then said Tashis should have used her teeth to fight off the rape.

This was said by a CNN anchor. On live TV. To an alleged rape victim.

It’s the worst example I’ve ever seen of insensitivity toward a rape victim. It’s a slap in the face and is blatant victim-blaming. Why didn’t you prevent it?

Media should never pretend to know more about a given situation, especially rape. Alleged victims should be able to come forward and share their stories openly, without judgment or a lecture. It’s reactions like Lemon’s that scare so many victims into secrecy. There’s time to ask the tough questions, including of victims, but in ways that address the facts of the accusation while acknowledging the sensitivity of it. Never assume you know anything about how a rape should or should not have happened.

Treat people like human beings, and be fair.

When it comes to addressing the suspect, you also need to balance sensitivity and fairness. A suspect should answer the questions, but should never be assumed to be guilty.

NPR found themselves in the right place at the right time: they had scheduled an interview with Cosby about an unrelated subject, but they now had the chance to get an exclusive statement.

During the interview, reporter Scott Simon saw his chance and he took it, but Cosby didn’t cooperate.

SCOTT SIMON: “This question gives me no pleasure, Mr. Cosby, but there have been serious allegations raised about you in recent days.”

BILL COSBY: [SILENCE]

SIMON: “You’re shaking your head no. I’m in the news business. I have to ask the question. Do you have any response to those charges?”

COSBY: [SILENCE]

SIMON: “Shaking your head no. There are people who love you who might like to hear from you about this. I want to give you the chance.”

COSBY: [SILENCE]

Cosby is a public figure, and if there are rape allegations against him, he needs to answer for it. A reporter’s job is to seek the truth. I commend Simon for asking the question, but I would recommend two changes:

1. I don’t agree with beginning the question with “This question give me no pleasure…” Just ask the question. You are being sensitive to the allegations by telling Cosby “there are people who love you who might like to hear about this,” and telling him you want to give him the chance to tell his story. But your own personal feelings about the question should not apply. Don’t sugarcoat it, don’t act like you’re friends, don’t say how much it pains you to even suggest such a thing. Ask the question. A reporter’s job is to gather facts. If it’s true, he needs to answer for it. If it’s false, he can deny it. But don’t imply that the question itself is uncouth.

2. After three instances of silence from Cosby, Simon moves on and ends the interview. Why stop there? Cosby can say “I’m not answering that.” He can get up and leave. He could even answer the question. But don’t let him off the hook so easily. You have him in the room! Take advantage and ask the questions.


 

In the end, there is no good way to go about covering a story about rape. But in the end, it’s not about the journalist and his or her feelings. It’s about sharing the stories of victims, and holding suspects and police accountable. It’s not about blaming, it’s about finding answers. It’s about exposing the ugly truth, and creating some change as a result.

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