AHCJ compiles tip sheet for reporting on sexual assault and harassment

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

The most recent wave of reporting on sexual abuse and sexual harassment began with the report on Harvey Weinstein’s decades of abuse in Hollywood, but other accusations of sexual assault and harassment by prominent figures continue to dominate the headlines. As more survivors of sexual assault and harassment come forward, journalists face a dual challenge.

First, they need to corroborate and fact check their stories as they would any other story, a necessity driven home recently by the Washington Post’s report of an attempt to deceive the paper into reporting a false accusation against Roy Moore, a nominee in Alabama for a U.S. Senate seat.

But just as importantly, they have to gather information, conduct interviews and confirm facts in a sensitive way that does not re-traumatize those coming forward. The former comes easily to most veteran journalists. The latter, for those new to the beat, requires guidance.

At first, these stories might not seem related to medical research. However, it’s important for journalists to provide context and help readers understand the causes and impact of sexual assault and perhaps report on what evidence-based prevention and treatment looks like. Many stories may blend findings from medical studies with the stories of survivors themselves. Even if you’re reporting on sexual assault research without interviewing survivors, it’s important to use the appropriate language in your story.

Among the best tip sheets for reporting on sexual violence is this one from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. AHCJ has summarized some of Dart’s key recommendations and several others into a link-filled tip sheet for reporting on sexual assault and harassment.

Dart advises that reporters start with the right preparation and approach, including learning about causes and effects of sexual violence and learning what language is appropriate to use (such as not describing rape as “sex”). They also advise journalists to consider whether it’s appropriate to approach a survivor at all, though many of the current cases involve survivors stepping forward and contacting publications on their own. The bulk of the Dart tip sheet focuses on the interview itself, which the Women’s Media Center supplements nicely in their 10 tips for interviewing survivors of sexual violence.

The Dart suggestions conclude with two big things to keep in mind while writing — again, the language you use, and then the impact the piece is likely to have after publication. It’s impossible to predict all the possible consequences of a piece’s publication, but the sensitivity of this issue demands that journalists spend a little time speculating the possibilities and being prepared for them.

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center also provides a journalists’ tip sheet for reporting on sexual violence. It starts with recommending that reporters consult a wide range of different sources, including “law enforcement, community members, medical and mental health professionals, sexual violence prevention advocates, survivors, families and perpetrators.”

And Columbia Journalism Review’s guidance for journalists for reporting on sexual violence is compiled in “The right way to write about rape,” with tips culled from a panel. They emphasize the importance of establishing a rapport with the survivor and then being honest about what the reporting process entails. Check out the tip sheet in the Medical Studies Core Topic section for more detail on the Dart Center’s suggestions and other links.

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