Stories of Sexual Assault Victims: A New Look at Anonymity

The Daily podcast did this very clever thing with the audio from the women and girls who testified during the sentencing of Dr. Larry Nassar. You hear the voices singularly at first, speaking in clear, declarative sentences. Then you hear snippets from one gymnast, then another, in a staccato sequence. Then you hear the voices as a chorus, saying different words to the same effect, a cacophony of young women, telling their stories.

I’ve encouraged innovative storytelling around the issue of rape and sexual assault as long as I’ve worked at Poynter. And I found the technique stunning. For too long, we’ve failed as journalists to listen to victims of sexual assault and let them tell their stories. This moment presents an opportunity to change our approach.

First, we should acknowledge where we are and where we’ve been. Here’s an abbreviated history of how the media has covered sexual assault:

  • Pre-1950s. Most of the stories that appear in newspapers about sexual assault involve cases where the accused was black and the victim was white. The victim is often named. The accused is often lynched. In many of these cases, it’s clear that no assault actually took place. These stories are not really about sexual assault at all, but usually about perpetuating stereotypes of race.
  • 1970s. Under pressure from feminists, editors at American newspapers adopt policies that prohibit the naming of rape victims in criminal cases. In doing so, editors and law enforcement acknowledge that crimes of rape and sexual assault are under-reported to police because of the shame and stigma associated with the crime.
  • 1990. Under the leadership of executive editor Geneva Overholser, the Des Moines Register publishes a five-part narrative series documenting the story of Nancy Ziegenmeyer, who was raped by a stranger during a home invasion. The series wins the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Overholser went on to argue that until we routinely named victims of sexual assault, we would never change the stigma associated with the crime.
  • Mid 2000s. After a series of kidnappings in which the names and photos of victims were widely published in hopes of rescuing them, the media must wrestle with the question of whether they should stop naming a victim if it is later discovered she was raped. (Yes, you should, most news outlets decide.)
  • 2011. The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, begins publishing stories about an investigation into Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. He is indicted later that year for assaulting young boys, and the newspaper wins a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. For the most part, the victims remained anonymous in news stories.
  • 2014. Dozens of women accuse actor Bill Cosby of sexual assault and agree to be named in various news outlets, including the cover of New York Magazine.
  • 2017. Dozens of women accuse Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment and in some cases sexual assault. Many agree to be named.
  • 2017. The #MeToo movement takes root, and workplaces across the country investigate a plague of sexual harassment that sometimes includes sexual assault.
  • 2018. More than 150 victims, most of them accomplished gymnasts, testify at the sentencing of Nassar, who worked for Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics. Most of them agree to be named. Some of them are famous Olympic athletes.

Current-day practice at most newsrooms doesn’t match the guidance in most written policies.

This is an excerpt from a piece originally published by The Poynter Institute. Click here to continue reading.

Dart Blog