How Not to Write About Rape

In "The Pornography Trap: How Not to Write about Rape," published in the January/February edition of Columbia Journalism Review, Rwanda-based freelancer Jina Moore makes a cogent argument that trauma reporting requires a moral and ethical frame that is quite distinct from standard journalistic practice. 

Moore, a 2009 Dart Ochberg fellow, writes that the standard feature narrative – a compelling lead, a sympathetic character, punchy quotes and copious detail – may suffice for conventional reporting situations, but can become problematic when applied to rape.

Moore contends that while most journalism seeks to convey information objectively, "trauma stories have an agenda: they call the reader to witness, to agree with the writer that 'this should not have been.' "

How does a journalist expose the suffering of survivors of rape to public scrutiny without descending into voyeurism – or worse, a kind of reportorial porn? Part of the answer, Moore contends, lies in the framing: making the audience ethically comfortable with a writer's story-telling choices, yet morally uncomfortable with the tragic situation being depicted.

"Trauma changes how our audience perceives our tools – and whether, in  their judgment, we use them ethically. 'Color' can clang against an impartial news voice; attribution can imply doubt; details can seem exploitative," she writes. "If we falter in tone; if we misuse dark details; if we overexpose survivors, we may lose our readers – and our mission. Whether they realize it, or we acknowledge it, the choices we make beg a moral question of readers: do they feel called to witness or do they feel implicated?"

To illustrate her point about the hazards of voyeurism, Moore cites the graphic details of an assault recounted by a rape victim from the Democratic Republic of Congo in a conventionally written 2009 Associated Press report and a 2010 New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof, in which he identifies a nine-year-old rape victim by name and uses her image in an online video. More positive examples include a report on rape as a weapon of war by Jeb Sharp of Public Radio International, in which the reporter acknowledges up front her own discomfort with the subject. 

Read the piece in its entirety here.


Correction: An earlier version this post reported that "The Pornography Trap" appeared in the current edition of Columbia Journalism Review. In fact, it was published in the January/February edition of the magazine.