A one in four chance
How reporters and sexual assault cases mix
Article: Robyn Tocker – A&C Editor
[dropcaps round=”no”]O[/dropcaps]ne in four women in Canada will be assaulted in their lifetime. Less than 10 per cent will file a report. Journalists have the ability to change how this underreported crime is told and how the victims are treated. This is not to say every reporter who covers these cases does a poor job. There are reporters who respect the victim and who treat them with compassion. Barb Pacholik, who has reported for the Leader-Post for 25 years, is one of them.
“I can’t think of a case specifically that I’ve covered that I torqued or reported in a far more sensationalized way,” said Pacholik. She has spent most of her career covering court cases, including sexual assault cases.
“Whenever there’s a criticism of the media I’m reluctant to link all of us together,” she said.
But there are areas of improvement that need addressing. “Shifting the Blame,” an article written by Laura Flanders on the website FAIR, documents how “the press is hearing the complaints of apologists; instead of condemning cruelty, the press promotes excuses.”
This applies to the Rehtaeh Parsons case. Through various media coverage, Parsons’ story focused on her suicide, not the sexual assault she endured at that hands of four male assailants.
Most reporters critiqued the police for their failings of her case, sensationalized certain parts of the story, and turned Parsons into another statistic in the long list of sexual assault cases in Canada. There were articles that retained her humanity, but those were few and far between.
One of her rapists apologized to her mother over Facebook after Rehtaeh died. In that apology he claimed he did not rape her and that she consented to the acts they committed against her body. Glen Canning, who published the full account of his daughter’s rape and suicide on August 9, 2013, was disgusted.
“I don’t understand how anyone can read that account and think this was consensual sex,” he said.
Promoting excuses isn’t the only area journalists have troubles with. After speaking to multiple sources in the Regina community, many agree misrepresenting the victim is a big issue the media must deal with.
Jill Arnott, the executive director of the University of Regina’s Women’s Center, said this is particularly troublesome to Aboriginal women and marginalized women. If they live in a low-income area or live a high-risk lifestyle, such as prostitution, it complicates how the story is reported.
“The implication is that they were somehow complicit in what happened to them,” Arnott said.
Dianna Graves works as the executive director of the Sexual Assault Services of Saskatchewan. She agreed with Arnott, but also brought up how the emphasis of these stories is on the act of rape, not the people. The assault is generalized. She called it “mechanical.”
Graves told the story of an immigrant victim who was sexually assaulted by a male taxi driver. She was domestically abused and had befriended the driver after fleeing with her five children. In most reporters, this information would not be included.
“There’s not that background, not the heart part of the story,” said Graves.
Linking sexual assault cases to the larger issue of gender violence is another failing the media has yet to fix. Karen Wood used to work at the healing center Tamera’s House before it was closed. She said her dream would be for a broader picture of violence towards women in general to make it into the media.
“Every time someone brings up the issue of sexual violence or partner violence, there are some broad statistics that could be said so we know it happens every day in our homes and communities,” she said.
The language used to describe these cases is important. Arnott said that it is typical to see the byline of “woman gets raped” not “man commits sexual assault” in the newspapers. This type of language places the blame on the women, even if it is done subconsciously.
“A perpetrator was busy violating someone’s human rights. That is the story. [Language] helps to refocus our scope on where it needs to be focused,” Arnott said.
Carla Beck, the assistant executive director of the Regina Transition House, said that historically journalists may have come a long way, but she sees glaring issues in how journalists report.
“Describing the use of alcohol prior to an assault, prior sexual behaviour, involved in prostitution, and [the] relationship [they] may or may not have had prior to the rape. All of those factors are failings of reporting,” she said.
Journalists may have a bad rap when it comes to reporting assault cases, but there is hope.
Holly MacKenzie did a case-study on how missing and murdered Aboriginal women were reported in the media. Her research connects to the discussion of sexual assault reporting. One piece of advice she offers reporters is to be self-reflective.
“Everyone is under timelines but [we have] to be self-reflective about what we’re doing, the assumptions we’re making, and the word choices we’re making,” MacKenzie said.
Linking back to how journalists use their words, Karen Wood mentioned journalists should be wary using words like “life-long harm.”
“It should be conveyed there are serious impacts from sexual assault, but it doesn’t mean a person can’t live a life of wellness and have a quality of life,” she said.
“Check your biases,” said Dianna Graves. “Truly understand your personal thoughts on sexual assault and what it means and understand the law.”
Graves also said journalists should focus on the definition of consent, respect, and for people to speak up when they see someone harassing someone. This includes when it is a male assaulting another male.
When thinking of assault, society sees the victim as female and the perpetrator as male, but 12 per cent of sexual assault victims are males in Canada. These cases are even more underreported. Graves said men need different care than women after they have been assaulted. Having been assaulted doesn’t mean they will become perpetrators, but their whole sense of self and the way they raise their sons can affect the future.
Jill Arnott said another way reporters can tell better stories of sexual assault cases is focusing on making sure the victim retains their humanity.
“The first thing is to ensure that the survivor retains their dignity and identity as a human being,” she said.
“Reporters can’t be objective,” said Darlene Juschka, a Women’s and Gender Studies professor at the U of R. “Know where you stand, then you make apparent where you stand and now you talk about how you think about this situation.”
Juschka added how journalists can make a difference in reporting by the amount of research they do on a subject. They need to dig deep, she said, and by showing the complexity of an issue it will make readers think harder on the subject.
“Journalists are good writers. Use the skill. Get there and get it fast but don’t lose complexity,” said Juschka.
Would having more females in the news room help? Juschka said some of the issues may be resolved with having more women involved, but they would have to be thinking about women. Being a feminist wouldn’t hurt either.
“A feminist in so far as I would have my gender lens on. I would ask what happens with men, what happens with women, what about transgender, bisexual, where are the sexualities? What’s going on?” she said.
Holly MacKenzie agrees feminism has a role to play in how sexual assault cases are told.
“[Feminism is] important because it offers the opportunity to think through these things and to question assumptions and stereotypes and how racism, capitalism, and colonialism have made certain women vulnerable. [Feminism] offers a way to think through how we can tell the stories better,” she said.
Carla Beck makes the point that unless you have representation in the media, the full story isn’t being told. This applies to women or people in poverty who lack access to whose voice is represented.
“If people lack access to power and resources, their voice is missing or underrepresented and that stands to further disadvantage them,” she said.
Jill Arnott said she isn’t really concerned if it’s a woman telling the story. She said she doesn’t know if it’s so much about numbers or the social perspective and norms around sexuality.
“Does it matter who is telling the story, outside of the fact it’s never the victim telling the story?”
One thing to take away from all this information is that, at the end of the day, no matter how a journalist tells their story, there is going to be a survivor out there who has to live with what happened to them. They must find a way to cope with the assault and that process cannot be rushed or determined by anyone but themselves.
Natalie Hemingway, a counselor at the U of R, said she has counselled both men and women who have experienced this type of trauma and she is mindful to not reopen that wound.
“Often, a person who has been assaulted really needs the sense that they are driving the bus on where they go from there,” she said.
“I don’t know that we’re able to ever restore a person to who they would have been before that trauma, but the goal of course is to turn the volume down on that event and regain their own lives and get onto the path that they had chosen and intended,” Hemingway said.
The U of R Counselling Services is not the only place to receive help after being assaulted. The Regina Transition House offers supportive counselling and an escape for women leaving abusive situations. The Women’s Center on campus provides crisis counselling and referrals to appropriate community resources.
“Being in an environment where they are assured that they are free to speak and safe to speak is really important,” said Arnott.
Tamera’s House, before it was shut down, offered a different kind of healing than both the Transition House and the Women’s Center. All women were in charge of their own healing. They set goals that were unique to them and would help them heal from the trauma.
“It was a space where individuals were part of a community and were no longer seen as a hurt person,” said Karen Wood.
Because it’s no longer there, “there’s no space that reminds the general public that sexual assault happens to children and women every day. It’s hidden again but the problem has yet to go away,” she said.
Wood does not know why it was closed, but she believes there will be another house like it one day for those who need healing from many kinds of trauma.
It can be challenging for a journalist to cover sexual assault cases. But Barb Pacholik maintains that the justice system is a public place and “justice has to be seen to be done. It’s why we sit there in court room.”
She said the courts have come a long way in making the victim feel comfortable in the courtroom. Reporters, Pacholik said, have to respect the wishes of the victim, especially in sexual assault cases. She has seen cases where publication bans (a victim’s name cannot be published) have been lifted.
“They wanted people to realize there is indeed a person behind those initials,” she said.
For the future to see a real change in journalism and sexual assault cases, our language needs to change, there needs to be less sensationalism, more research, and reporters need to remember there are people behind those statistics. Everyone has the right to retain their dignity in the eyes of the media.
[button style=”e.g. solid, border” size=”e.g. small, medium, big” link=”” target=””]Image: Lee Bay, Marjory Collins[/button]