The CJR Urges Biased Journalism in Sexual Assault Cases

KC Johnson
July 21, 2013

The Duke lacrosse case represented an almost textbook example of how key elements of the media (notably the New York Times) should not cover sexual assault cases. Uncritical acceptance of Mike Nifong’s version of events, undisguised sympathy toward accuser Crystal Mangum, an utter lack of skepticism about key procedural issues presented by Mangum’s defenders.

Yet according to the Columbia Journalism Review, the Times’ approach is exactly how journalists should cover sexual assault cases. Under a teaser tweet of “tips . . . before you report on sexual assault,” the CJR recommends a piece by Alexis Sobel Fitts on the “right way to write about rape.” Applied to events on campus–where sexual assault cases routinely lack due process, and in which the allegations of accusers rarely are tested either through a criminal investigation or a medical examination–the CJR’s recommended guidelines would be disastrous.

Fitts turns for guidance to Claudia Garcia-Rojas, described by CJR as “an activist and advocate from Chicago.” In her analysis of how the media covers sexual assault cases, Garcia-Rojas purported to discover “leading language, scant statistics, and a whole lot of victim blaming.” Since this portrayal came in an article about journalistic language, let’s start with the obvious: before trial, an accuser is not the “victim,” unless the journalist has chosen to pronounce judgment from the start.

Along these lines, Fitts, paraphrasing Garcia-Rojas, offers the following advice to reporters: “Make sure your story won’t compromise the safety of the survivor. Also consider the perpetrator, especially if he or she hasn’t been convicted.” How can an accused person be a “perpetrator” if he “hasn’t been convicted”? The CJR doesn’t explain. And does Fitts belief that the mere filing of a criminal complaint (or, in the case of most college allegations, not even filing a criminal complaint at all) transforms an accuser into a “survivor”?

Fitts (or Garcia-Rojas through Fitts; this portion of the article isn’t entirely clear) also criticized the use of “shaky statistics” in coverage of sexual assault–though she doesn’t identify any such statistics. Perhaps she was referring to the claim that one in four or one in five college-age women are sexual assault–a “statistic” that would yield the absurd result of the typical college campus having a higher rate of violent crime than Detroit. Yet this sort of “shaky statistic” often appears uncritically in the press.

In the rare instances in which a reporter gets to interview an accuser, Fitts, paraphrasing Garcia-Rojas, urges reporters not to “ask too many incendiary ‘why” questions.” A reporter asking skeptical questions? Apparently not. And reporters should steer clear from words that “insert shame and uncertainty into quotes”–such as “alleged.” That appears even when describing the alleged events: “Garcia-Rojas recommends a blunt description of actions, such as, ‘He forced his penis into her mouth.'” And how, before trial (or in the case of college complaints, without benefit of a criminal or medical investigation) should a reporter be able to conclude exactly what happened.

Apparently, that’s the type of “incendiary” question that the CJR wants reporters to avoid.