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Annie E. Clark

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"Did Your Blood Splatter or Pour?" and Other Media Mistakes: Interviewing a Survivor of Sexual Assault

Posted: 09/26/2013 5:18 pm

Dear Media,

Let's face it, it's been a hectic past few days. From Sen. Cruz's failed Wendy Davis attempt , to the flurry of iOS7 complaints, you've been busy. On top of that, you've been reporting a lot on campus rape lately -- partly because so many schools are filing federal complaints and you should be covering it, so thank you for that. However, there are a few issues I want to address regarding your articles and interviews about sexual assault.

As the IX Network and a survivor collective, we have been on almost every major and many local media outlets -- TV, radio, online, and in print. From CNN, MSNBC, New York Times, Glamour Magazine, Miami Herald, the AP, Bloomburg, LA Times, The Philidelphia Inquier and dozens of blogs and hometown papers, we have been asked hundreds of questions, some of which are good journalism tactics, and many of which are horrific invasions of privacy and violations of decency.

But with the number of politicians making insensitive, inaccurate and downright idiotic remarks about sexual assault, it's not surprising that some journalists have done the same. Most of you know -- I hope -- that bleeding or vomiting does not stop rape , that rape actually can cause pregnancy and sometimes you can't just shut it all down. So when a reporter asked me to tell him "all about the conquest of my vagina," I just sigh and end the interview rather quickly.

First piece of advice: If you want to report on human-interest stories, at least can treat your sources like humans.

While these examples are indeed ludicrous, they are not terribly uncommon. But there are other questions and comments you ask -- ones that aren't necessarily meant to cause harm, yet still the consequences of your words are still unfortunately harmful to some survivors.

Therefore, in an effort to help you out, I wanted to share my first 10 tips when interviewing a survivor of sexual assault:

1. Do your homework. Look up basic background information before you call. Many reporters cover a wide variety of beats and are not required to be experts on any topic, but can you at least do a 2-3 minute Google search? The response: "Wait, you're saying that rape happens on college campuses? I mean...does it really?" clearly shows you have not taken any time to research. At this point, you're 30 seconds into your conversation, and a survivor already feels invalidated. Fail.

2. If you get past those initial 30 seconds (congrats!), make your source comfortable by stating that the individual can share as much or as little information the individual wants. As reporters you have to ask difficult questions sometimes, but do not probe for the same detail over and over if you have already been told, "I'm sorry, I'm not willing to share that." That's harassing and annoying.

3. Use some old-fashioned common sense. Ask questions in an appropriate manner (secret: it will help your story too!). With cases of sexual assault, obviously very sensitive questions have to be asked, and many people are willing to speak-out. However, as one IX Network survivor recently told me: "I am much more inclined to answer the question 'Are you comfortable sharing any details of what happened?' than the demand of 'Tell me: Did your blood splatter or pour during your attack?'" And yes, dear media friends, one of you asked that recently.

4. Do not blame the victim. Ever. Period. If you don't know what victim blaming is, please see #1.

5. With phone interviews, do not call any survivor ten, hell three, times or more in an hour. Ditto with Facebooking, texting, tweeting and emailing. That's called cyber-stalking.

6. With live or in-person interviews, please be respectful of the fact that your sources are people (and often they are students) first. Do not show up to their residence hall rooms uninvited or request that they step out of class to do an interview. Do not follow them to a frozen yogurt shop and slyly ask what they think of "the flavor of the day....now what do you think about rape?" Do not wander around campuses looking for them with their picture in hand. That's just creepy.

7. Be respectful and knowledgeable of the time zone in which your source is located. If something is BREAKING at 7:30am EST, do some math; recognize that 7:30am EST is 4:30am PST. Let our students sleep. Particularly with a survivor dealing with PTSD or general life after an assault, let them schedule a time that is comfortable for them to talk to you.

8. Pay attention to the story the survivor wants told and take that framing into consideration. As a former (albeit, very low level) journalist, I understand editorial demands, and they're often stringent. But at the end of the day while these are your articles, these are our stories.

9. Do not over-sensationalize. Report the facts, use our quotes, but don't fabricate details to make these crimes seem even more heinous. I promise you, rape is bad enough already; there's no need make things up.

10. Do not expect people to cry or to be a "poor victim." In one TV interview, I was repeatedly asked "how vulnerable" I felt. I was then told that I "should feel" certain ways and that laughing and shaking my head (off camera!) at absurd victim-blaming things that were said to me was "insensitive because rape is very serious." Oh, really? Rape is serious? Hang on, let me get my pen and make a note.

I have been misquoted, misrepresented and misunderstood, and I expect more of the same; anyone who has ever been in any media story can tell you that. That's unfortunately par for the course. Some of this mixed messaging is human error -- I get it -- but some is downright it-bleeds-it-reads-I-want-the-bloodiest-story-first-dog-eat-dog-mentality.

So, my reporter friends, as the issue of sexual assault continues to gain momentum across the country, I have no doubt that many of you will be interviewing more survivors. I have spoken with terrible journalists, yes, but the polar opposite has also been true. I have spoken with many fabulous reporters and producers, some of them have even disclosed to me a personal connection to the issue. I want to see more journalists who are dedicated to honest investigative reporting, not in sensationalizing headlines; and, when I see more of those journalists, I'll look forward to reading your stories.


Sincerely,
Annie E. Clark
IX Network

 

Follow Annie E. Clark on Twitter: www.twitter.com/aelizabethclark

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