In July, Senator Dianne Feinstein received a letter. The letter accused Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. The author of the letter was initially kept confidential, largely due to the torment she feared would be brought to both herself and her family. However, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford eventually felt compelled to come forward as the author of the letter as the publication of her identity seemed inevitable. Through a writer at the Washington Post who ultimately gained her trust, she was able to describe the assault in her own words. Although Blasey Ford chose to come forward on her own terms, some of the media has boldly demonstrated that the potential for a big scoop outweighs the privacy of sexual assault victims. In a post-#MeToo era, this disrespect has to stop.
So what happens when the publication of the identity of the victim could put them in danger? After revealing her identity, Blasey Ford has been on the receiving end of severe harassment, including death threats, and her family has had to move homes to ensure their safety. The reporters who showed up at her house were obviously not the cause of this invasion of privacy, as they were doing what every journalist does — reporting on a story. But in a way, the actions in the case of Blasey Ford exemplify a larger industry failure to demonstrate adequate empathy.
This is not to say that victims of sexual assault should uncomfortable publicly coming forward — there is immense power in doing so, which should be applauded. However, the decision to do so should not inevitably result in such dire, life-threatening consequences. Saying that Blasey Ford should understand the threats that result in coming forward and should, therefore, blame no one but herself makes the many outlets who have highlighted her story exempt from any form of accountability on the issue.
Media outlets equip the masses with a certain amount of power. But when they’re able to uplift the voices of those like Blasey Ford while simultaneously providing a platform for those who claim her and others like her to be liars, the debate on accountability becomes a problem. Said accountability is also problematic when an initial story spirals into ridiculous claims that are thought to be true by a mass number of social media users. In response to several of these claims, the New York Times published an article that debunked scandalous rumors about Blasey Ford. While their endeavor in and of itself should be applauded, it is also a practice that has not been seen from publications that may not be as influential but still hold power to certain audiences. For example, some of these false claims have even been started by conservative media figures who have still not been held responsible for spreading lies.
The media cannot claim ignorance on responsible sexual assault reporting. There are plenty of guides available; their very existence suggesting that this is a topic that is often misreported. Take the Online News Association’s ethics guide, which says, “the general belief is that, given the stigma sexual assault carries in most societies, media should refrain from identifying victims of most sexual crimes, unless the victim is willing to speak publicly.” That is not to say that news outlets meant to disclose Blasey Ford’s identity without her approval — in fact, all outlets have only shown her name with her consent. The reasoning behind this ethics guideline, however — according to the National Alliance To End Sexual Violence — is that the amount of shame that a victim can receive upon being unintentionally identified can actually deter others from reporting their own sexual assault.
Already, there is a huge issue with sexual assault being underreported; only around 23 percent of sexual assault are reported to the police, making it the least likely crime to be reported. Blasey Ford placing her name to her accusation was undoubtedly immensely brave, and her testimony was incredibly inspiring. As journalists, it is our responsibility to make sure our industry treats survivors better. If we do, then perhaps we will be able to better foster a culture whereby victims do not feel as if they have to be silent.
In the words of Debra Katz, one of Blasey Ford’s lawyers, “victims must have the right to decide whether to come forward, especially in a political environment that is as ruthless as this one.” The right to this decision starts with changing the culture of our media industries, with consequences for those who demonstrate unethical practice. If the media begins to respect the wishes of sexual assault victims, perhaps another woman will not have to feel as if her privacy has been taken from her in a time of immense pain.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Oct. 9 print edition.
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