Jeffrey Goldberg on how NOT to report about rape

Jeffrey Goldberg, writing for the Atlantic, joins the cacophony of people calling out the New York Times for their rape coverage which crosses the victim blaming line again and again.

He quotes a section from a recent NYTimes piece about a rape and has this to say in response:

Does it matter that she is friendly? Does it matter that she is a good person? Does it matter that she has never been a problem? Of course not. Rape is rape. The character of the victim is irrelevant. There’s one caveat to this idea: If reporters had discovered in the woman’s past a pattern of making false accusations in criminal matters, well, then there’s a plausible argument that information about her character should be reported. Otherwise, her mood, relative-friendliness or unfriendliness, shopping habits, dietary needs — all completely immaterial.

He also makes the point that the way journalists do their reporting matters too. Who they interview for this kind of “character research” matters, even if those details never make it to print.

One more thing: Reporters should think twice about visiting the neighborhood of an alleged rape victim in order to ask questions about her life and character. The unintended consequence of such a visit is to publicize, in the place where she lives, her plight, and raise possibly-destructive questions about her situation. Newspapers withhold the names of alleged rape victims for a reason: to protect their privacy. But when reporters ask family, friends and neighbors superfluous questions about the alleged rape victim, they have outed her in the place that matters most.

(I would add that these things hold true regardless of the gender of the victim–victim-blaming crosses all lines of identity).

Journalism matters. It influences public opinion about issues like rape and the way survivors are treated. Details aren’t just details. Mentioning the outfit of an 12 year old gang rape survivor is irresponsible journalism. As Goldberg points out, questioning a victim’s character is irresponsible reporting–and so is outing her to her neighbors.

I’m glad to see people calling out big media for these wrongs, and especially glad a white male journalist is joining the chorus. We need to be calling this out from all sides.

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  • nazza

    When my friend died a little over a month ago, a local television station sought a totally disingenuous angle by which to present his death. When a mutual friend to both of us was asked to contribute her own opinion of who he was based on this angle, she refused because she knew it to be both false and to be fishing for controversy. All they wanted was ratings and sensation.

  • Beth

    I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who read the NYT coverage of the DSK rape and it’s “everyone we talked to said she was lovely” caveat as a totally misdirected attempt to compensate for their horrible “everyone we talked to said she dressed like an adult” coverage of the TX gang-rape. NYT still doesn’t get it.

    As a huge Francophile (French major, used to live there, etc.), I think the over-all response by the French left (if the Partie Socialiste can even call themselves that anymore, having the head of the IMF as their presidential candidate front-runner) of this accusation has been disgusting. The worries over the American justice system (which, yes, is incredibly flawed, but almost ALWAYS in favor of rich, white dudes like DSK), the mentioning of our “puritanical” culture as a way of victim blaming, it is totally gross and shameful.

  • Jessica “Jess” Victoria Carillo

    THANK YOU, Jeffrey! Course this is an anvil that always needs to be dropped