Opinion: Why journalists fail survivors

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Written by senior English major Jamie Maas.

After hearing about the sexual assault allegations against Hollywood director Harvey Weinstein, actor Woody Allen said he was “sad” about the whole ordeal. Quentin Tarantino responded that he was ‘heartbroken” over the allegations and that he needed time to mull over his own “pain and emotions.”  All of these responses to allegations—that Weinstein himself confirmed as true—all have one thing in common: the tendency to turn a woman’s assault in a story about men and what we can learn from it.

This compulsive reframing of women’s experiences into men’s revelations are not just inspired by Hollywood movie scripts, but has embedded itself into the very fabric of American political culture through the way that journalism has normalized particular ways of talking about it. From John Humphrys using BBC to suggest that allegations made in the wake of #metoo is a witch hunt, to Donald Trump himself dismissing claims of sexual assault through the defense it was just “locker room talk,” much of the way that we have normalized conversations about sexual violence end up belittling, minimizing and undermining the women that this type of media coverage is supposed to protect. The media is in a unique position to out predators and share stories like no other institution, so why is it so bad about confronting sexual violence?

One possible answer, according to a study done by UC Berkeley, is that much of the media coverage surrounding #metoo allegations tends to overfocus its coverage on the reaction that an accused man presents. For example, the media coverage the first two hours after the Brett Kavanaugh hearing was very much in support of the brave and articulate testimony given by Christine Blasey Ford. Trump himself, and other Fox News media pundits described her testimony as “credible” and a “disaster for the republicans.” But as soon as the initial shock wore off, and as Trump and other republicans began mocking her testimony, media coverage converged around these displays of toxic masculine power and this became the new media narrative, rather than the story that Ford was so terrified to present. This not only gives problematic men and their opinions more airtime and thus more credibility, but shifts a focus away from the actual detailing of events to the aftermath. This makes it all too easy to forget about the initial reason for media coverage in the first place.

And problems like this are compounded by the way in which in the media’s efforts to present a story fairly end up leaving too much up for debate. While I am personally all in favor of sharing both sides of a story, in the context of sexual assault allegations this needs to be done in a very careful way. In the status quo, women are just not believed most of the time. The benefit of doubt in the courts, in the locker rooms, and in public opinion is very much on the side of the man. Within this context media coverage that is responsible to survivors of assault needs to understand that and report within mind. Media bias in favor of survivors might be necessary to overcome the status quo’s over prioritization of male narratives. To make the world a better place doesn’t require that journalists grill survivors like what would happen in a courtroom, the court of law has its own constraints and limitations.

Media coverage and journalism is hard. Sexual assault allegations are hard to cover. It is important to have conversations about the ways that reporting can hurt, or help survivors of traumatic incidents. It’s 2019, let’s stop focusing on what shitty men have to say and start prioritizing the plight of brave survivors coming forward.

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