Challenging the way journalists report sexual assault

Warning:  The following article contains disturbing details.  But should it? In the latest issue of the King's Journalism ReviewMarie Hanifen explores the delicate balance required to report on sexual assault cases and the point at which including details becomes gratuitous. 

Warning:  The following article contains disturbing details.  But should it? In the latest issue of the King's Journalism ReviewMarie Hanifen explores the delicate balance required to report on sexual assault cases and the point at which including details becomes gratuitous. 

She was halfway through reading her poem when she started to cry.  Seeing the words on paper, hearing the sounds of her friend sobbing on the other line, unleashed a tightly bound ball of pain in Margaret that she still cannot describe.

“It was seeing my experience on paper…” she said before trailing off.  It was our second interview together, and she paused, as she often did, to calmly collect her thoughts before continuing.   “I’ve done so much work on this, and at times I still do, even today.”

You won’t find many better experts on the treatment of sexual assault victims than Margaret Mauger.  Sexually assaulted at 13, Margaret now works as a counsellor for victims of sexual assault at the Colchester Sexual Assault Centre in Truro.  There is something to be said about Margaret’s story.  While putting her experience down on paper was a positive experience in the long run, Margaret wonders how she would have reacted if a journalist had written her story instead.  This article aims to create a discussion about how journalists talk about sexual assault, and if they are hurting or empowering sexual assault victims in their desire to reveal the truth. — M.H.


Irene Smith is used to being asked stupid questions by journalists.  And when a young woman reported waking up inside a cab to find the driver touching her, Smith knew that she’d be getting more stupid questions.

“So the media called and they asked, what are we going to tell women?  What are we going to tell them to do to protect themselves?” Smith says.  “That’s a very frustrating question.”

It’s frustrating, Smith says, because it puts the pressure on the victim to avoid being sexually assaulted, rather than holding the offender accountable.  Smith, who has been executive director of the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre in Halifax since 1995, adds that bad questions are only one part of the problem with the way journalists cover sexual assault.  Another common offense that journalists commit is providing unnecessarily graphic details of the crime.  Smith points to the Jennifer Horne murder case as an example.

In 2007 the body of Horne was found wrapped in carpet inside the closet of a Dartmouth apartment.  After the common-law couple accused of killing Horne pleaded guilty in 2010, the publication ban on the details of the case was lifted.  Both CTV and CBC revealed how Horne’s body, face and hands were bound in duct tape, that she had 40 injuries to her body including multiple stab wounds to her genitals, and that her body was so badly beaten that her bruises blended together.

Smith was offended by the level of graphic detail in the news coverage and called CBC and CTV to complain. 

“I said, you need to stop and think about how this is going to impact on (Jennifer Horne’s) family,” Smith says.  “And they did sort of back off.”

While journalists may need to “back off” now and then, journalists are often expected by their editors and their newsroom ethics codes to exercise a certain degree of sensitivity, both to the victim and their audience.  And while coverage can sometimes be difficult for the audience to swallow, it can also be difficult for a journalist to report. 

Five years of working the court beat for the Telegram in St. John’s has earned Rosie Gillingham a thicker skin, but she still has her moments.  In 2009 a man had been accused of sexually assaulting his stepdaughter over a five year period.  The girl, 16 years old at the time of the trial, had resorted to hiding a camera in her room in order to document proof of the assaults.  On the stand, she broke down in tears.  

“I’ll never forget the emotion that the stepdaughter showed on the stand.”  Gillingham said.  “I did everything I could from crying myself.”

Despite Gillingham’s softer side, some of the advocates interviewed expressed a concern over some of Gillingham’s articles.  Her descriptions came off as too dramatic and explicit to some. 

Margaret Mauger, the counsellor at the Colchester Sexual Assault Centre in Truro and a survivor of sexual assault herself, calls this type of writing “Hollywooding it up”.  She worries that stories such as Gillingham’s are done to be shocking, not enlightening.  Articles she took particular offense to include a lede in which a man testified to ripping off a woman’s underwear without taking off her jeans and another explaining how a man threw a child onto a bed before sexually assaulting him.  While some may argue that these details are tame compared to the details that were given in court, Mauger feels that these types of descriptions emphasize the drama of the situation and create specific visuals in our minds, and that doesn’t sit right with her. 

Instead, Mauger would prefer that journalists stick to the bare facts when describing sexual assault. 

“If he broke her arm, if he tore her, if he tore him, or whatever,” Mauger says. “It’s a fact.” 

Despite some advocates’ reactions to her articles, Gillingham defends her choices.

“In that story I was trying to grab the reader’s attention to make them realize how vicious this crime was.  How aggressive this  man was being with her,” Gillingham says.  “I mean, to (tear off) someone’s underwear without even (taking) off her jeans; this  is how brutal this man was… that was what I was trying to get there.”

However, Mauger and some other advocates interviewed felt that the more explicit accounts of sexual assault should be reserved for times when the victim has approached the journalist to provide the details themselves.     

Despite some differences, Gillingham and Mauger both believe in the importance of expressing what sexual assault victims have gone through.  In the not too distant past, sexual assault was a much more hushed crime.

According to Christopher Murphy, a sociology professor at Dalhousie University, both domestic abuse and sexual assault were often perceived as private problems until feminist groups forced the issue into the public sphere in the 1970s and 1980s.  Various studies during this period also revealed the staggering extent of sexual assault in Canada.  This time period also saw a significant increase in the number of sexual assault articles, as well as an increase in the number of graphic depictions of sexual assault.    There was also a significant increase in the number of articles that address sexual assault as a social problem.  These changing attitudes led to changes in Canada’s rape laws in 1983.  These new laws had various effects, such as shifting the burden of proof away from the victim and making it illegal for a man to rape his wife.   

While it is no longer uncommon for articles to feature descriptions of sexual assault, Steve Bruce, the court reporter for the ChronicleHerald in Halifax, uses these details sparingly.  However, he believes that sometimes the disturbing details are essential.    

While volleyball coach “Luc” Potvin was being sentenced to four years in prison for sexually assaulting a 17 year old girl, Bruce was at home, sick.  A veteran reporter stepped in to cover the case for Bruce.

“I was pleasantly surprised when I picked up the paper Saturday and saw that (the reporter) had approached it the same way that I had planned on doing it,” Bruce says.  “Which was to give people as much detail as we could.”

The details included how Potvin touched the victim’s genitals, made the victim touch his genitals, and performed oral sex on her.  The article also revealed how Potvin pressured the girl into masturbating in front of a webcam, which he secretly recorded on his computer.  Bruce felt that the story warranted the additional detail due to the position of authority that Potvin held, and how he abused that position.

“If you’re in position like this and you abuse that trust, you’re going down, big time,” says Bruce.  “And I think it’s important to show people what they’ve done, not just to tell them.”

However, Brad Kelln, a forensic psychologist who works with sex offenders, argues that reporting on the graphic details of sexual assault in an effort to educate the public is unnecessary. 

“It’s not like you need to illustrate to people that sexual assaults are bad or harmful.” Kelln says.  “Anyone that doesn’t recognize that is not going to suddenly have a light bulb come on reading this article, ‘oh my god, I didn’t realize that raping was actually bad?’”

In Kelln’s view, graphic depictions in sexual assault stories are tapping into a certain mindset.  It’s the reason why people rent the newest Saw sequel or pick up a gory novel, he says.  Kelln thinks that the legal terms used for sexual assault, with a one-liner explaining what the terms mean, should be enough. 

But many journalists and editors question that viewpoint, and believe that it’s a journalist’s duty to provide the details.      

Kathy English, the public editor at the Toronto Star, is one of those editors.  English doesn’t believe that journalists should shy away from evidence that’s presented in open court. 

“If you’re covering a criminal trial and there’s horrible, horrible details about a sexual assault, would you call that gratuitous or would you call that necessary to understanding the crime?” English says.  “We should not be turning our backs in open court because we think people might be upset by it.”

Both English and Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC, agree that reporting on the details of trials is an important aspect of keeping the courtroom transparent. 

“If we are the eyes and ears in a courtroom then that’s what we have to provide, and I think that’s what people are looking for.”  Enkin says.  “They don’t want a level of detail that’s going to be really disturbing; however there are times when the nature of it is disturbing and we have no choice.”

Lee Lakeman certainly doesn’t disagree.  With more than 30 years of anti-violence work under her belt, she’s probably seen and heard worse than many journalists.  However, Lakeman would like journalist to focus on more than just the graphic details.   

“I don’t have a problem with graphic,” says Lakeman.  “I have problem with turning the violence into a kind of pornography rather than talking about violence as a force, and talking about who’s exercising that force and who’s a subject of that force.”

Lakeman, who works for both the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres and the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, thinks that journalists should be encouraged to provide more coverage on the wider social problems that surround sexual assault cases, such as investigating the power imbalances between men and women that contribute to sexual assault.  She feels that a broad liberal education is vital to this and that working closer with advocacy groups would help as well.   

Some advocacy groups and journalists are trying to bridge the divide between being compassionate to victims and reporting on the truth.  The Poynter Institute produced a webinar in 2007 entitled “Covering Sexual Assault.”  During the webinar, journalists and advocates were paired up, allowing for an unusual chance to candidly talk and ask questions.  The webinar is available on the Poynter Institute’s website.     

Another group in the United States called the Michigan Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence produced a guide for journalists covering sexual assaults in 2004.  The group wanted to develop a closer relationship with the media so that information about sexual assault would be more consistent, rather than a knee-jerk reaction to high profile cases.    

Angelita Gunn, the associate director of the coalition and the primary author of the guides, says that the book did have an impact.  For several years the coalition experienced a “spike” of journalists calling to get perspective on a case.  Gunn says that journalists also seemed to become more intentional about the language they used when talking or writing about sexual assault.  

However, since the publication of the guide the coalition’s budget was cut, limiting its capacity for media advocacy.  She fears that without advocacy guidance, the local media is returning to their old ways. 

Local advocacy groups are trying their hand at working closer with the media too.  Back at the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre in Halifax, Smith is trying to convert a guide produced by the centre into a PDF file.  She hopes to get it up and running on the Avalon website soon.

She hopes that the guide, which includes statistics, definitions, and examples of ‘offensive’ headlines, will help journalists become more sensitive to the feelings of victims.  Instead of calling her asking how victims can protect themselves, she wants journalists to try to look through a different lens, and hopes that the booklet can help them find it.  More than anything, she wants journalists to understand the struggle that victims face, and to try to be respectful of that.  

“(The victim) goes through an awful lot to hold that offender accountable, at a personal loss and a personal cost, not just to her, but to her family.” Smith says.  “Journalists owe them the respect they deserve, for having the courage to come forward and go through the whole process.”     


This story was originally published in the latest issue of the King's Journalism Review. The original story can be found here