Reporting on Sexual Violence

Media reporting on sexual violence is a critical piece in the puzzle of shifting public perceptions and cultural norms that allow violence to persist. At their best, journalists hold institutions and perpetrators accountable, provide a platform for survivors to reach a wide audience, and positively influence public policy.1 But coverage of sexual violence can be fraught; experts at the Columbia Journalism Review noted “Of all crimes, rape is perhaps the toughest to cover.”2

Reframing the Conversation

Media coverage shapes how we talk about, legislate around, and understand sexual violence.

1

Media coverage shapes both public opinion and public policy.

As media increased its attention on campus sexual violence, we saw an influx of legislation relating to campus, both at a national and state level.

 

2

Assaults that are tried in court are the exception, rather than the rule.But media coverage tends to focus on these cases, which oftentimes don’t reflect the reality of what sexual violence looks like.

Fact: More than 60% of incidents are never reported to police.4

 

3

The general public cannot conceptualize sexual violence prevention outside of punitive measures (prison / jail / sex offender registries).5

Fact: Sexual violence prevention advocates appear in 9% of news coverage. People who committed violence were found in 13% of stories.6

Words Matter

The language we use to report on and talk about sexual violence matters. By using words or phrases that imply consent, we “diminish the perpetrator’s dangerous behavior [and] make the acts seem sensual or pleasurable rather than criminal.”7

Our litmus: If you’d use the term to describe two consenting adults on a date, it is likely not the best choice for describing sexual violence.

Below are a few examples of problematic language in reporting, and suggested examples for reframing the story.

We know journalists are accustomed to using some of these well-known terms and we understand that there are challenges to changing the language we use. But for journalists committed to ethically covering sexual violence, reframing some of this language is a key part to a better understanding of sexual violence.

Please note that the below table uses language that may be upsetting or triggering for some. Though these examples use gendered pronouns, we recognize that sexual violence occurs across the spheres of sex/gender identity.

Problematic Language

Here’s Why

Alternative Solution

“sexual misconduct”

This term is often used to describe workplace violence, and sanitizes the assault or violation of a person.

Reporting on workplace violence is strengthened by stating the specific act; i.e., “coercive behavior,” “groping,” “inappropriate sexual comments,” “forcible touching.”


“child pornography”

The production of professional pornography involves contractual consent to be filmed. Children legally cannot consent to sexual activity.

Instead, use: “child sexual abuse images” or “images depicting child sexual abuse” or “sexually abusive images of children.”


“child prostitute”

Per AP, this should never be used, as legally children can never consent to sexual activity.

Instead, AP recommends 8
using the more accurate term, “survivors and victims of rape.”


“Engaging in sexual contact”

This general language sanitizes sexual assault and violence.

State the specific act, i.e., “forced penis into the victim’s mouth,” “forced hand onto the victim’s vagina/mouth/nipple,” etc.


“fondled” or “groped”

This unspecific language sanitizes the assault.

“Fondle” specifically implies an interaction that was “loving or erotic in nature.” 9

Instead, we can use “forcibly touched” or “touched without consent,” and describe specific elements if they are necessary for the reader to understand the assault.


“revenge porn”

The production and distribution of professional pornography involves contractual consent. Even if the images were obtained willingly over the course of a relationship, the release of them afterwards without the participant’s consent is a violation. Using the term “porn” or “pornography” implies that the victim consented to their release.

“nonconsensual sexual images,” “image-based sexual abuse,” or “intimate photos released without consent”


“gang rape”

This language is often included to sensationalize an account of a sexual assault.

Describe the crime first, and then indicate more than one perpetrator by using: “assault with multiple perpetrators” or “assault with more than one perpetrator”


“the woman alleges”

Although it’s common to use ‘alleged’ when reporting on crimes, in this context ‘allege’ has an inherently negative connotation.

We can circumvent needing to use this language by citing information from official reports10“police say the victim reported being raped in her dorm,” or “court documents state that the victim described…”


“had sex / intercourse with [him/her/a 16-year-old girl]

Using this language implies consent. It is especially problematic when this language is applied to minors, who legally cannot consent. Only two adults capable of agreeing to participation in sexual activity can engage in intercourse / sex. 11

We can use “forced penetration” or “forcibly penetrated”
in place of “had sex,” which reinforces that there is a difference between consensual sex and sexual assault.


“kissing a young man”

The word “kiss” is inherently consensual and implies the victim willingly participated. “Kiss” also implies affection, which should never be used to describe sexual violence.

Also, the use of “young man” rather than “boy” or “child” appears to try and add more maturity to the victim.12

We can reinforce that this interaction was an unwelcome violation/sexual assault by using: “The perpetrator forced/put/placed his mouth onto the mouth of the victim.”

Our litmus: If you’d use the term to describe two consenting adults on a date, it is likely not the best choice for describing sexual violence.

Offering Guidance

Reading details about sexual violence in news stories can be difficult for victims and survivors of violence. We recommend offering the following language to connect folks in New Jersey with services designed to support them:

“Need support? Call New Jersey’s confidential, 24-hour statewide hotline toll free (800 – 601 – 7200) or visit njcasa.org/find-help.”

Find Local Experts

Looking for experts on sexual violence prevention and response to interview? Download our full list of media contacts by county!

Advocates can offer a critical perspective to coverage of sexual violence – including information about prevention, trauma response, current legal requirements, and more.

References

[1] Mejia, P., Somji, A., Nixon, L., Dorfman L., Quintero, F. (2015). What’s missing from the news on sexual violence? An analysis of coverage, 2011-2013. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Media Studies Group. Retrieved from: http://www.bmsg.org/sites/default/files/bmsg_issue22_sexual_violence_news.pdf  

[2] Coronel, S., Coll, S., Kravitz, D. (2015). ‘Rolling Stone’s’ investigation: ‘A failure that was avoidable.’ Columbia Journalism Review. Retrieved from: https://www.cjr.org/investigation/rolling_stone_investigation.php

[3] Cox, T., Miller, M.J. Reporting on Sexual Violence. Poynter Institute. Retrieved from: http://www.newsu.org/courses/reporting-sexual-violence

[4] Ibid. 

[5] O’Neil, M., Morgan, P. (2010). American Perceptions of Sexual Violence: A FrameWorks Research Report. Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute. Retrieved from: http://www.frameworksinstitute.org/assets/files/PDF_sexualviolence/AmericanPerceptionsofSexualViolence.pdf

[6] Mejia, Somji, Nixon, Dorfman, Quintero. What’s missing from the news on sexual violence? An analysis of coverage, 2011-2013. 

[7] Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (2013). Reporting on sexual violence: a guide for journalists. St. Paul, MN: MNCASA. Retrieved from: http://www.tricountywomenscentre.org/uploads/5/7/6/6/5766610/2013mediamanual.pdf

[8] Nunn, Gary (GaryNunn1). “@APStylebook drops problematic terms ‘mistress’ &’child prostitute’ after @change petition http://www.change.org/nosuchthing.” 26 April 2016, 6:08AM. Tweet.

[9] Knutson, A. Castillo v. Government of V.I., 2006 WL 2993017 (D.Virgin Islands) (September 25, 2006). Boston, MA: New England Law Judicial Language Project. Retrieved from: https://student.nesl.edu/centers/clsr_jlp.cfm?action=viewCase&Entry=178

[10] Garcia-Rojas, C. (2012). Reporting on rape and sexual violence: a media toolkit for local and national journalists to better media coverage. Chicago, IL: Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls & Young Women. Retrieved from: http://www.chitaskforce.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Chicago-Taskforce-Media-Toolkit.pdf

[11] Knutson, A. Castillo v. Government of V.I., 2006 WL 2993017 (D.Virgin Islands) (September 25, 2006).

[12] Paolantonio, Z. Hogan v. West, 448 F.Supp.2d 496 (W.D. New York) (September 21, 2006). Boston, MA: New England Law Judicial Language Project. Retrieved from: https://student.nesl.edu/centers/clsr_jlp.cfm?action=viewCase&Entry=149

NJCASA is grateful to the Center for Cooperative Media for the expertise they lent to this project. 

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