In Wake of Somaly Mam Allegations, Ethics on Covering Sexual Assault Revisited

In the wake of allegations that Cambodian human rights activist Somaly Mam may have fabricated parts of her own story of being sold into sex slavery, important questions are again surfacing about journalistic ethics and responsibility when dealing with victims of sexual assault. 

As Alyssa Rosenberg writes in yesterday’s Washington Post, “How should reporters balance their mandates to seek out sources whose voices have been obscured and to minimize harm to their subjects with the need to deliver accurate information to their readers? In particular, what are the best practices for verifying the stories of survivors of sexual assault and trafficking?”

Rosenberg cites the many factors that make interviewing and verifying survivors’ accounts a challenge. One of them is that trauma survivors’ memories can appear inconsistent, even when true. But, as Rosenberg writes, studies of reporting on sexual assault suggest that only two to eight percent of victims’ claims are untrue. It is crucial for journalists reporting on this issue to think carefully about how to approach victims and how best to help them understand what verifying their stories will take.  

Rosenberg cites several valuable resources for journalists undertaking such work, including the Dart Center’s tips on reporting on sexual violence, and the Society of Professional Journalist’s code of ethics. 

Rosenberg also cited a 2009 conversation between Kristen Lombardi, a staff writer with the Center for Public Integrity and a former fellow at the Dart Center, and Dart Center executive director Bruce Shapiro about covering sexual assaults on college campuses. “I needed to corroborate what they were saying, and, if I was going to feature their cases, I needed people who were comfortable with me filing records requests for their judicial file, talking to the school officials, signing waivers granting permission so the school officials would talk to me,” she said.  “I needed them knowing I was going to go to the accused student. The women knew what this accused person would say about them. At that point it became clear who was comfortable with that kind of reporting and who wasn’t.”

Lombardi also wrote a valuable tip sheet for the Dart Center on working with victims.

Rosenberg concludes, “As the Mam case makes clear, however painful it might be to verify and report out a survivor’s story, it is important to find ethical ways to do so. The best result will be a story that is richer and has stronger context. The worst is that diligent reporters discredit an exception to the overwhelming rule before people who fabricate their own history do great damage to those many, many people who tell the truth."