“Use the Right Words” is an unfocused and poorly researched guide giving highly questionable advice to journalists reporting on sexual violence. Published by Feministo & collaborators, the document includes a highly biased list of Do’s and Don’ts as well as advice on finding and interviewing victims and tips for journalists who encounter sexual violence. Sprinkled amongst this mix of topics is a scattering of poorly researched facts that at times, blatantly twists findings into outright lies.
The list of Do’s and Don’ts provided by this guide blatantly directs the journalist to present only one side of the narrative to, in effect, accept every sexual assault allegation as true. One can’t imagine how that might possibly go wrong! The advice given to journalists includes avoiding words such as “allegations” and “claims” unless absolutely required by law. Just think what that says about this publication. The criminal justice system is predicated on the burden of proof being placed on the accuser; innocent until proven guilty. This document is telling journalists to avoid framing it in that manner unless absolutely legally required.
That is just the tip of the instructional biases this guide provides to prospective journalists. It also instructs them to Don’t take into account a victim’s clothing, addictions, past relationships, etc. Don’t focus on facts that may make the perpetrator appear to be “unlikely” rapists such as their impeccable standing in their community. Don’t suggest that the reported sexual assaults may be an attempt to tarnish a person’s reputation or the stunt of a jilted ex-lover. However, Do recognize that the perpetrator may hold a position of power over the victim such as that of a teacher, an employer or just you know, “being white, male and middle-class.”
So basically, this guide instructs journalists to ignore anything that may cast doubt on the victim’s narrative and also ignore any information that may indicate the perpetrator’s innocence. Instead, focus on how the perpetrator may have possibly used their position of power and privilege.
One may think that isn’t particularly egregious. After all, perpetrators shouldn’t be given sympathy or excuses for their crimes. However, there’s just one little oversight. “Perpetrator” isn’t the correct term; journalist should be using the term “accused.” A perpetrator is someone who has committed a crime. If a journalist is reporting on a perpetrator, then guilt has already been established in a court of law and the focus of the reporting would have likely shifted to whether or not the sentence was deserved and perhaps what restitution the victim can receive. If a journalist is reporting on sexual assault allegations as is implied from this guide’s instructions on how to avoid using the the word alleged, then the person should not be called the perpetrator. If a journalist is biased like this guide and starts liberally using the word perpetrator to describe the accused, then they are practicing shitty, biased journalism. They would be throwing the concept of objectivity, fairness, impartiality, and truthfulness out the window along with the rest of journalism ethics.
So boiling it all down, if a journalist were to follow the advice of this guide, they would have implicitly labelled the accused party as guilty, ignored any evidence that may indicate innocence for the accused, and smeared them as a likely abuser of their supposed positions of power and social standing such as being male, white, and middle-class.
This is the kind of shitty advice that leads to spurious reporting such as the UVA rape case by Rolling Stones that was eventually retracted for being found to be patently false. The framework and language used by the author of that story even seems to follow this guide. The reporting was focused only on one side of the narrative with the accused liberally slandered for abusing their position of wealth and power. Similar to advice provided by the Feministo guide, there was little to no focus on police and legal findings nor any attempt to give the accused a voice. It also turned out that the writer of the piece, Sabrina Rubin Erdely went looking for a rape case to report on, a topic which is actually covered by this guide in the section “Can’t find a survivor to feature?”
In addition to advising journalists to bias their language, this publication also presents numerous side facts that are selectively chosen to present skewed opinions and at times blatant untruths. It was stated as fact that only 1 out of 10 sexual assaults are reported to police. The actual source reports that 88% of sexual assaults go unreported but that the numbers are “too small to provide reliable estimate.” An examination of the data reveals that the source doesn’t even provide a number due to this inaccuracy. In addition 81% of sexual assault were of less serious “incidents of sexual touching, unwanted grabbing, kissing or fondling” so 88% of sexual assaults going unreported does not mean 88% of aggravated sexual assault (rape), went unreported.
Although both acts are sexual assault crimes, one is significantly less severe than the other and should not have the same penalties. An individual who has fondled someone should not receive the same sentence as a serial rapist. Yet another piece of advice given by this Feministo guide, instructs journalists to Don’t describe the act as sex and avoid terms such as oral sex, kissing, non-consensual sex and instead use language like rape or sexual assault. When a journalist avoids describing the crime in those terms and instead categorises everything as sexual assault, how does the reader know what crimes were exactly committed. What are the allegations? Was it rape? Was it fondling and kissing? Describing the act does not detract from the violence of the crime nor come across as voyeuristic as this guide claims. It informs the reader on what the crimes actually are which one would consider perhaps important in journalism.
Aside from the cherry picking of select facts, there are also blatant untruths reported in this guide. This document states that: “in 99% of sexual assaults the accused perpetrator is male.” The reference that the ignorant authors used actually reported that 99% of sexual assaults against women were perpetrated by men which isn’t surprising as the majority of the population are heterosexual. Imagine a study that found men who suffered spousal abuse were attacked 99% of the time by women and then going on to present that fact as 99% of spousal abuse is perpetrated by women. It would be a blatant lie yet these are the sort of facts that are reported in this document.
In its totality, this publication is an amalgamation of biased advice for journalists, incorrectly researched facts, and blatant lies. If journalists were to actually take this document as a guide on their reporting, then the future will likely turn into a bleak dystopia in which the swaying of public opinion through biased journalism becomes the machinery in which innocents, political dissidents, and people of a different opinion to the mainstream are locked away.
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