The media plays a key role in not only documenting but also educating the public on all issues of cultural importance.
Nigeria’s rape epidemic is one issue whose place on the list of cultural importance continues to rise as sustained awareness forces the hand of stakeholders to pay attention, if only inadequately. The media appear to be doing its bit, but perhaps, not as well as it should.
Reports of rape cases are no longer few and far between in the media – which will be sad if it didn’t only capture a tiny fraction of the rape epidemic in the country – making the situation sadder still.
Many might argue that it should be enough that the media is spotlighting this menace. But is it enough if the spotlighting contributes to the persistence of rape culture because it is poorly done?
A conversation with an acquaintance about a high-profile rape case from 2020 forced the two of us to come to a shocking realisation – a disturbing number of small details in many of the reports around that incident will continue to make it harder for victims to speak out. Worse still, the reportage very likely contributed to the huge public backlash against the victim.
We pulled these details apart, and this piece – a how-to for media house on reporting rape ethically – is the result.
- ‘Rape’ is a grievous enough term:
9 in every 10 news headlines goes the extra mile to be as sensational as possible.
“XXX defiles YYY”
Language is powerful. The use of the word ‘defile’ as a euphemism for sexual violence not only deflates the violence but also further victimises survivors even beyond the rape they have suffered.
To defile means to damage – to mar.
Victims of sexual violence are also victims of trauma, which can have short-term and lifelong mental and physical health implications. They have suffered enough without that suffering being confounded into a future where news headlines from a harrowing past will remind them that society sees them as damaged.
“As long as people have any sense of privacy about sexual acts and the human body, rape will, therefore, carry a stigma—not necessarily a stigma that blames the victim for what happened to her, but a stigma that links her name irrevocably with an act of intimate humiliation.”
– Helen Benedict, Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes 7
- Respect the privacy of victims:
While many news outlets have adopted a policy of not identifying victims of rape or sexual assault, some still scramble to be the first to do a name reveal. It serves little purpose unless they are the ones who opted to put their new out.
Even where the victim’s identity has become public, reporting this requires discretion on the part of a reporter. It is key to remember that the victim deserves privacy regardless.
- Be generous with details, but know how what and what not to reveal:
For the particular case we examined, many news outlets went out of their way to mention that the victim had gone to a party organised by the perpetrator and opened to beautiful women at no cost. They also made sure to mention that the victim had accepted an offer of accommodation after a night of partying. Pictures from the event were slapped on posts to drive an unspoken reprimand that invited victim-blaming.
Under no circumstance is it okay to report that:
- The victim dressed provocatively and/or was attractive:
This is an open invitation to victim-blaming and enabling of rape culture. All blame for rape is on the rapist. Dressing, or lack thereof, is never a reason to rape anyone.
- No weapons were used:
This implies a reduction of harm done. There is no need to know that no weapon was used unless the intention is to plant an enabling seed of doubt in the conscience of society.
Sexual violence is a continuum of behaviours that include, but are not limited to, rape, criminal sexual conduct, sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation and sexual harassment. None need to involve weapons to be grievous. The violence is in the trampling of the victim’s bodily autonomy. That should be the message driven.
- The victim had no physical injuries:
This has the same implication as the former.
- The victim was being prostituted, was drunk, or willingly accompanied the offender:
The crux is sexual violence, whether the victim was being prostituted, drunk, or accompanied the perpetrator is immaterial if they are subjected to sexual violence they are sexually violated. That’s it.
- The victim previously had consensual sex with the offender:
This is especially harmful to survivors of intimate partner violence. Prior consent doesn’t equate to consent in perpetuity. To report that the victim had previously consented to sex with their violator is to open the door for a conversation on if the allegation was caused by lovers’ row. Freshly traumatising the victim and giving rapists a wiggle room to escape accountability.
These aren’t exhaustive, but as an initial pointer, they serve as a starting point.
You may feel that your hands are tied as a reporter with all the dos and don’ts. That isn’t true, however.
There is a lot you can still do.
You can cover the many cases:
- In which the perpetrator is known/related to the victim
- Of people who are particularly vulnerable, such as people with disabilities, children, and the elderly.
You can bring deeper perspective to:
- What it means to refer to sexual violence as a spectrum.
- Your local data of the prevalence of sexual violence and related issues.
- What experts have to say to make your story more compelling and accurate and to educate your readers/viewers
- The myths and outdated attitudes around sexual violence.
You will be doing the work in a humane way that ensures greater impact over time.