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Media Coverage Of Sexual Assaults Changing, Could Be Better

Feb 2, 2018

Sexual assault survivors are speaking out more and more, from the #MeToo movement to the heart-wrenching testimony of 150 young women who testified at the sentencing hearing of USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.

The media’s been covering more and more of these cases, where survivors of sexual assault are speaking out publicly. Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies said while media stories traditionally have left victims anonymous, that may be changing.

She said while high-profile cases involving powerful figures such as comedian Bill Cosby and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein have brought forward more voices, there’s something else at play.

“What I see among the younger sexual assault survivors is a rejection of the stigma and the shame that society puts on them. And that’s mainly because – through the internet – they can connect with each other and tell their stories in alternative forums,” she said. “And that gives them the power and the confidence to reject those societal judgments.”

McBride challenges journalists to look at how they cover sexual assault stories now, and ask if they are serving the audience well. Usually, she said, the stories are about individual incidents and approach the topic from a public safety perspective.

“Those stories really do very little to help families protect their children or their loved ones from sexual assault,” she said. 

Instead, she said, news outlets can instead approach sexual assault as a public health issue and report deeper, more meaningful stories that can help explain the problem.

“I would recommend to editors that they don’t cover cases of sexual assault unless they are going to spend a lot of resources figuring out what happened,” she said. 

She points to the Indianapolis Star’s investigation several years ago of USA Gymnastics. That work is what led to the first victim of Larry Nassar to come forward.